Niong dou fu or yong tau fu is universally recognized as a traditional Hakka dish. In Singapore yong tau fu food stalls are a favorite in food courts and hawkers market, where it is typically served buffet style.
At the stalls, stuffed tofu is displayed with serving size portions of vegetables, noodles and a variety of stuffed peppers, bitter melon, egg plant, chilies and lady fingers.
To order, you fill up bowls with your selection, order it cooked with broth or laksa and specify whether you want it ‘wet’ or ‘dry’. ‘Wet’ means you prefer everything mixed in with the soup, ‘dry’ means you’d like your noodles dry with the soup served separately. As the cook prepares your order, you prepare your tray with chop sticks, soup spoon and dipping sauces. All food stalls are equipped with gallon containers of chili paste and vinegary chili sauce. Yong tau fu stalls come with additional tubs filled with a spicy sweet, hoisin-like bean paste.
Although all yong tau fu is hand-made, not all stalls make them in house. Many are mass produced and distributed by wholesalers across the island. For truly good yong tau fu, you have to search for it. After my first couple tries, I was not overly impressed with food court yong tau fu. Although nicely presented, they suffered from a uniformity of taste and texture. Besides, having grown up with an entirely different style of cooking stuffed to fu, I found the soup based version bland and unexciting. Therefore it was with slight optimism that I ventured forth with my friend Lisa to Bai Nian Yong Tau Fu, identified as one of Singapore’s best.
Located in Albert Centre’s food center Bai Nian Yong Tau Fu was an unassuming stall. Operated by a couple who made everything themselves, they offered a limited selection of dishes and no buffet of fixings. Your choice was limited to the type of noodles, bee hoon (rice vermicelli), yellow (egg) noodles, kway teow (flat wide rice noodles) or rice.
The menu board listed eight different dishes, the most prominent being Yuan Yuan Yong Tau Fu and plain Yong Tau Fu with soup. The difference was not immediately obvious but careful inspection showed that Yuan Yuan contained more stuffed vegetables in addition to the stuffed tau fu pieces. For variety we ordered both (dry), along with a satay version for variety.
It was delicious! Tender and chewy, the filling was light with the taste of fresh fish unmarred by doughy fillers. The satay version was tasty too, but ultimately I had to agree with Lisa that the yong tau fu’s delicate flavor was overwhelmed by the heavy sauce. I am now a convert to Singapore style yong tau fu and will be heading back to Albert’s Food Center for my next fix.
How is Singaporean yong tau fu different from the Hakka niong dou fu I know? To answer that we have to look at how it is made.
One of the best descriptions of Singaporean yong tau fu is described in The Food Canon’s three part article on Auntie Ruby’s Hakka Yong Tau Foo. The author, Terry Wong does a wonderful tribute to his late mother’s cooking and captures not only the recipe but the sense of camaraderie that goes with cooking yong tau fu.
Making yong tau fu is a long fiddly process. It begins with scraping the flesh of fresh mackerel and blending it into a smooth paste with minced pork, salt fish and seasonings. The paste is then stuffed into a variety of vegetables and different types of bean curd. Most people are familiar with stuffing blocks of tau fu cut into squares or triangles. The Food Canon adds another variation by using bean curd sheets (foo chook) and inverted tau fu puffs (fried tau fu poks). Many hands make light of this type of work and I love his idea of having yong tau fu parties to prepare, eat and enjoy the dish.
So that’s how Singaporeans make authentic Hakka yong tau fu. Except … is it authentic? After all, the Hakka were originally from land locked Meizhou and many recipes call for fillings made totally with pork.
Linda Anusasananan author of The Hakka Cookbook, says that one way to distinguish Hakka and Cantonese yong tau fu, is the presence of pork versus fish. Cantonese style is made wholly with fish. Hakka style is made with pork.
Remember though that the Hakkas were itinerant people constantly migrating, adapting and adopting local customs. As they migrated away from inland Meizhou and closer to the coast, they surely adopted the Cantonese way of cooking and incorporated fresh seafood into their dishes.
My family line must have branched off before the descent into the coastal lands. We did not use fish in our stuffed tau fu. Instead we used … but that’s another story 🙂
Stay tuned for the next installment of the Hakka Heritage Food trail.
Singapore. October 2016