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錢大昕《豆腐》“Tofu” by Qian Daxin









The rumbling sound of the chariot of thunder having just come to an end, [2]

Worn firewood [3] was burnt for evening cooking, vapour soaring.

Where the butter [4] lands, there’s the fineness of the salt from Wu; [5]

Wrapped in white silk comes the tenderness of the jade of Bian. [6]

Icy and snowy, [its] heart is indeed beyond this world;

Sour or salty, [its] flavour is whatever [you] make it.

Lord Heaven has left behind [such a] formula for dining on rosy clouds [7]

Which should provide for the Master for sixty autumns.

* From Qian Daxin's 錢大昕 (1728-1804) Qianyantang shi xuji 潛研堂詩續集 5.5a (preface 1806).

[1] Red characters rhyme. [2] Leiche 雷車 (chariot of thunder) refers to the chariot of the god of thunder. [3] The expression laoxin 勞薪 (worn firewood) comes from an anecdote about Xun Xu 荀勖 (d. 289) recorded in the Shishuo xinyu 世說新語: (passage 2). He tasted some bamboo shoots and said they were cooked by some “worn firewood”. Someone enquired about it afterwards and found out that the firewood was the wheel of an old chariot. [4] The original expression ningzhi 凝脂 reads “congealed fat/lard”, which has been a common metaphor for fine texture (especially of the skin) since the Shijing 詩經 (Book of Songs). [5] In Chinese literature, the salt produced in the Wu region (roughly modern Jiangsu) has been considered as the finest salt and a symbol of gastronomic enjoyment since the Tang dynasty. The poet Qian Daxin, by the way, was a native of Wu. [6] Bianyu 卞玉 (jade of Bian) refers to the famous jade of Bian He 卞和 (fl. 8th century BCE). As the story goes, he found a rock in the mountain and believed there was a piece of exceptional jade inside. He presented the rock to the King of Chu, but the king’s jade craftsmen regarded the rock as a common rock. Bian He lost both his feet following his two attempts to present the rock to two kings of Chu. On his third attempt, the king (yet another one) finally had some craftsmen work on the rock and discovered the precious jade inside. The jade disc born out of this rock came to be known as Mr Bian’s Jade or Mr He’s Jade. [7] Canxia 餐霞 (dining on rosy clouds) is believed to be part of the Daoist lifestyle, referring to the breathing exercise in the morning.


Before I came across this poem, Qian Daqin 錢大昕 (1728-1804) had been known to me only as an eminent Qing historian and linguist. But tofu changed all that. I was thrilled to find that this highly respected scholar shared my love for tofu and had directed his literary prowess to celebrate the understated elegance of this pure and tender piece of magic.

I was equally thrilled to have the best tofu at my grandmother’s place during the Spring Festival. It was not just about the texture that Qian Daxin exalts in lines 3-4. Nowadays it’s very easy to find tofu of different levels of tenderness. Even when I lived in London, where local supermarkets only offered the softer tofu in aseptic packaging, typically from Japan, it was easy enough to find a good range from silken, soft, medium firm to firm and extra firm tofu in East Asian supermarkets. I often used tofu for pan fried and stewed dishes and miso soup.

I also know people who don’t like tofu at all. They say they can’t understand how such a tasteless ingredient which seasonings penetrate with difficulty has gained its popularity. But as Qian Daxin indicates in lines 5-6, the charm of tofu lies partly in its purity and, perhaps a bit paradoxically, adaptability. Whatever dishes you make out of it, tofu is happy to don a coat of the flavours of other ingredients and seasonings but always maintains purity in its heart. In a light dish, it naturally works with other ingredients of mild flavour in harmony. In a salty or hot dish, its tenderness and purity deliver a welcome, gentle stroke to the palate through the storm of intensive tastes and explosive spices.

And the tofu from my grandmother’s place, made by my aunt, just added another level on top of all that. It had a beautiful bean flavour that enchanted me from the very first bite and made me realise that tofu was not born to be completely “tasteless”. Such a revelation! After having two bowlfuls of tofu, I said I must stay here and learn how to make tofu.

So there we go. I had my first two-night stay in my grandmother’s village and attended my private tutorial on the second day.

My aunt makes her tofu from the young beans she grows and uses calcium sulfate (shigao 石膏) as the coagulant. They had stopped using the big old stone grinder some years before, otherwise I would have had the opportunity to push the traditional “chariot of thunder”. But the new electric chariot rumbles just as loud (if not louder).

The grinding machine separated the soybean milk and dregs. The smell of the raw soybean milk was already sublime...

After grinding the beans and rehydrated dregs twice, we had a big bucket of soybean milk and a pot of lighter milk for soybean milk congee (which was also superb).

While my aunt boiled the raw soybean milk, I was asked to prepare the coagulant solution (calcium sulfate + a bowl of raw soybean milk, about 3 tbs of calcium sulfate powder for 1.5 kg of beans). When I was whisking the solution, my aunt told me about her working on the stone grinder for a whole day for just a few pieces of tofu in the old days...

The hot (but not boiling) soybean milk was poured in one go into the big bucket with the coagulant solution, stirring forbidden (N.B. not necessarily applicable for other types of coagulant).

After about 30 minutes, my aunt asked me to throw a chopstick into the bucket and see if it could stand. If it does, the coagulation process is finished and it’s time to have some tofu pudding (douhua 豆花 or doufuhua 豆腐花)!

(Tofu pudding before and after adding brown sugar syrup; my cousin said he preferred the salty and spicy version)

With a bowl of silky tofu taken out for the pudding, the rest of the content in the bucket was transferred to a square mould, lined with a big piece of cloth, for draining and final shaping.

Freshly made tofu (firm)!

My aunt wasn’t aware of our city people’s craving for her ultra-organic handmade tofu until we had this tutorial. We ended up making tofu with another 2.5 kg of beans that day and also had an evening cooking session, although the dry twigs we used were not really “worn”...

Sadly, the tofu I brought back from my tutorial is now all gone. But I also brought back some beans from my aunt, and the tofu mould and coagulant I ordered online just arrived. I don’t have my aunt’s machine that separates the soybean milk and dregs, but I believe I can make do with our standard household soybean milk machine. I’m also looking forward to trying out different coagulants... What can be more exciting than new challenges and experiments!


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