SHAM SHUI PO // HONG KONG
Tofu is a delicacy that transcends many cultures and cuisines, a simple dish that can be plated in a myriad of forms, textures and flavours. From silken to puffed, sweet or stinky, from China to Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia and beyond – this basic ingredient made from just soy beans, water and a natural coagulant has become a historic staple throughout the Asian continent.
In Hong Kong, tofu plays another important role – it’s comfort food.
I’ve talked about Hong Kong’s craving for nostalgia before, but it was only after a bowl of warm tofu fa, the local tofu pudding, that I saw just how much food plays a part in this culture's yearning for the past.
“Tofu pudding is not just a pudding, people want to find something related to their childhood,” says Renee So, the fourth-generation owner of Kung Wo Beancurd Factory, a tofu shop in the heart of Hong Kong’s old town, Sham Shui Po. “On the weekends we have lots of families coming to our shop – grandparents taking out their grandchildren. The grandparents want to show the next generation what they had when they were young,” she says. “I think that’s why tofu pudding is so popular, it has a bit of childhood history.”
Rewind to about 60 years ago, when the original owner Mr Bom Lok swapped his street stall for a bricks-and-mortar shop in the busy area of Sham Shui Po. Back then the neighbourhood was home to a thriving shipping port, and dock-workers would head straight to Kung Wo for some restorative soy milk after a hard day’s work. Renee says back then the shop was a popular date-night spot, open until the early hours of the morning to draw the post-cinema-goers from the theatre nearby into Kung Wo for a sweetie with their sweetie.
“In the 1960s, Hong Kong was not a wealthy society. At that time there was no choice for dessert like cheesecake or macarons, people were happy with tofu pudding or soy bean milk because it was very local and very cheap,” she says. “Now we have lots of different types of desserts to choose form, but it’s funny, people still want to find something more original.”
Kung Wo’s tofu pudding is still made to Mr Lok’s traditional recipe. After the dried soybeans are soaked in water for up to 10 hours, they go through a milling process to extract the milk. “We use a granite stone mill," says Renee. "The beans lie in-between the stones, so it is a very gentle grinding process to soften the beans and turn them to liquid." Renee says it's this step that helps make her tofu pudding very smooth.
In Hong Kong, texture is everything, and Renee credits her pudding’s silkiness as the reason for its popularity. “People in Hong Kong like their food as soft as jelly,” says Renee. “In Taiwan, for example, people prefer the tofu to be harder and chewy. Both are tasty, but it’s just different.” Renee trains her staff to serve tofu pudding with no cracks, the scoop is flipped in the bowl to ensure a smooth, satiny top.
In Taiwan, tofu is made using sea-water to curdle soy milk; the mineral bittern found in unrefined sea salt causes the milk to coagulate. But Renee, like most Chinese and Hong Kong tofu-makers, uses diluted gypsum to make tofu, and serves her puddings plain with minimal toppings. “The Taiwanese like to add red beans or pearls, and make different pudding flavours. In Hong Kong, people just like the smooth textures and light flavour, so we just put raw sugar or ginger syrup on top,” she says.
Apart from their sweet pudding, Kung Wo are also famous for their deep-fried tofu, stuffed with a layer of Renee's dad’s (that's him and Renee, below) 10-ingredient fish paste. “We get fresh fish from the market every day and my dad makes it with his secret recipe… there’s dried mandarin skin, cabbages, and more,” says Renee, who is still yet to learn the full ingredient list from her dad.
As we sit down to take a spoonful of our tofu pudding, simply sprinkled with a layer of raw cane sugar, a couple on the table next to us tell us they’re visiting from Canada but grew up here in Hong Kong, and always come for a bowl of Kung Wo's tofu pudding on their visits. “When we were little we didn't have McDonalds, this is the childhood memory for us. It's nothing special - it's just a memory. For us it's comfort food, it’s what we love.”
Kung Wo Beancurd Factory (公和荳品廠)
G/F, 118 Pei Ho Street, Sham Shui Po, Kowloon, Hong Kong; (852) 2386 6871
This story is adapted from an article I originally wrote for Jetstar Asia magazine's Tradition Talks column, published July 2017.
Photography: Leigh Griffiths
Words: Eloise Basuki
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