This great recipe came about by mistake. I’d mistakenly thought that I had a key ingredient – bean sauce, for a recipe in Grace Young’s terrific Chinese cookbook, Breath of a Wok. But I went ahead and made the recipe and it turned out really really well. The reason was fermented tofu (fu ru).
The dish in question was a stir-fried clam in bean sauce. Yours truly swore that she had a jar of Chinese fermented bean sauce in the fridge. I looked and looked but to no avail. The recipe also called for white fermented tofu (chao in Vietnamese, bai fu ru in Mandarin), which I keep on hand as a pantry item.
What is fermented tofu? Sometimes referred to as “Chinese cheese”, fermented tofu is like a cross between camembert and blue cheese stored in a brine of rice wine, salt, and sometimes chile too. I’ve made it myself (there’s a great recipe in Asian Tofu on page 41) and buy it too. My favorite brands come from Taiwan and are sold at Chinese markets.
The flavor of good white fermented tofu is delicately cheesy and winey. People eat white fermented tofu with rice and jook (chao) creamy rice soup. It’s also used for creamy, pungent sauces (think dairy-less cheese sauce).
I often stir-fry spinach with white fermented tofu and have made dipping sauces and marinades with it (check Asian Tofu pages 63 for grilled Viet goat skewers, page 148 for a Thai dip with coconut milk, and page 212 for a lemongrass and chile sauce). Fermented tofu is loaded with umami savory flavor, which is why it’s a great ingredient and vegan source for cheese-like goodness. If it still sounds weird to you, check health food markets in the vegan cheese section; there’s dairy-less sliced cheese product called Chao made from fermented tofu.
I have to admit that what originally drew me to Grace’s recipe was the fermented tofu. I’d never seen it combined with bean sauce. But when I realized that I was missing the bean sauce, I just dropped it altogether. The dish was quite elegant. The tofu left its creamy, rich imprint that matched super well with the manila clams I’d purchased. The recipe called for littlenecks, which are too large for my taste. Manila clams, especially the smaller ones, have great flavor and a better shell to meat ratio since the shells are thinner (why pay for shell?).
Because manila clams are smaller and lighter than littlenecks, there are more of them per pound. Clams are briny by nature so I didn’t really need the salty depth of the bean sauce! The manilas naturally made up for the lack of bean sauce. I noted down the recipe and wrote it up for you to try out.
You may not have white fermented tofu in your pantry but after getting some for this recipe, you will. It keeps in the fridge indefinitely.
Clams with Fermented Tofu and Chile
Serves: 2 as a main dish
- 1 1/2 pounds (675 g) manila clams, smaller ones preferred
- 1 tablespoon mashed fermented white tofu
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
- 3 tablespoons water
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 Fresno or long chile, thinly sliced
- 2 slender celery stalks, thinly sliced on the diagonal
- Rounded 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
- 2 tablespoons canola oil or other neutral oil
- Wash the clams and set aside to drain. Cover and refrigerate if not using within 20 minutes.
- Stir together the tofu, sugar, rice wine, and water. Set the sauce near the stove with the garlic, chile, celery, and cornstarch slurry.
- Heat a large wok or Dutch oven over high heat. Swirl in the oil, then add the garlic, and chile. Stir for about 15 seconds, until fragrant. Add the clams and celery. Stir to combine well and cook for about 2 minutes, until heated through. Add the sauce.
- Cover and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. When clams start opening up, remove the lid and let things vigorously cook. As needed, transfer clams s that open up to a serving dish to make room for the others to open.
- When all the clams have opened, give the cornstarch a stir and add to the pan. Cook for about 15 seconds, or until slightly thickened. Transfer to the serving dish, discarding any unopened ones. Serve immediately.
Another VWK clam recipe to try: Clams with spicy bean sauce