Dazhugansi, Shredded Tofu in Chicken Broth
Dazhu gansi mainly uses shredded tofu and chicken meat, with the addition of shrimp meat and other ingredients, making it a delectable dish praised as a “delicacy of East Asia.”
In the early morning, as sunlight shines through the windows of teahouses, quiet streets gradually come alive, and the ancient city of Yangzhou exudes with energy. In the teahouse, many dishes, like tofu noodles, layer cake and steamed pork dumplings are served. The place is filled with the aroma of noodle soup, baked wheaten cake and longjing tea. Yangzhou locals have the habit of starting their day with morning tea ever since long ago and are still enthusiastic about it.
In history, many places in Jiangsu adopted the habit of having morning tea but few kept it. Yangzhou inherited this tradition, and it took root among the people, making it part of their everyday life. The unique dishes served during morning tea make Yangzhou's food culture more colourful. Yangzhou culture has a lot of meaning reflected in its food. Those who've never been to Yangzhou associate the place to its gorgeous scenery, but those who've already travelled there have fond memories of its morning tea.
Yangzhou residents hardly have breakfast at home. Both the young and elderly alike enjoy visiting teahouses. They drink tea, eat a bowl of dazhu gansi (boiled shredded dried tofu) along with a few plates of snacks, and chat along the ancient canal. Yangzhou's morning tea culture seems more exquisite when compared to Beijing's.
Yangzhou is an historical cultural ancient city with a refined lifestyle and exquisite dining etiquette. Emperor Qianlong (reign: 1736–1796) once travelled to regions south of the Yangtze River on many occasions and this developed a good reputation for the ancient city. He liked the place for its beautiful people and scenery,
and couldn't forget the taste of its delicacies. In a poem Wang jiangnan (“Looking at the Regions South of the Yangtze River”), the scene of how Yangzhou people of the Qing Dynasty enjoyed jialiao gansi (shredded tofu with extra toppings) was described vividly, just like a painting. The “gansi” mentioned in the poem was once served as a tribute to the emperor and has since become today's dazhu gansi, a signature Yangzhou dish. Beijingers call this dish “shredded tofu soup.”
Emperor Qianlong once visited the southern regions six times. Officials in Yangzhou served him jiusitang (soup with nine types of shredded ingredients). In addition to shredded tofu, the soup also contained eight other shredded ingredients: ham, bamboo shoots, whitebait, fungus, dried mushroom, seaweed, egg and chicken meat. Occasionally, shredded sea cucumber or bird's nest are also added. As the original taste of tofu is mild, it is necessary to cook it in chicken broth along with other ingredients to make it tasty enough. Dazhu gansi has evolved and differs from the jiusitang of that time. Today, dazhu gansi mainly uses shredded tofu and chicken meat, with the addition of shrimp meat and other ingredients, making it a delectable dish. Dazhu gansi is not only popular in China, but is also praised as a “delicacy of East Asia” by foreigners.
In Yangzhou, you can find dazhu gansi almost everywhere. Be it luxurious hotels, roadside eateries, cafeteria's kitchen, or the home kitchens of commoners, dazhu gansi is being cooked to perfection in most places. Yechun, Fuchun, Jinchun and Gonghechun are some teahouses with signature Huaiyang dishes and are highly recommended by elderly Yangzhou residents. The four teahouses each excel in their own ways, providing Yangzhou people with different locations to enjoy tea in a relaxing environment.
Laofuchun teahouse, located deep in an alley, prepares various snacks and quality tea for diners each morning. Each dinner is served with their signature fuchun tea, made by the restaurant. Pickles and cold dishes which include salted pork in jelly are also available. Salted pork in jelly is eaten together with shredded ginger, and vinegar and goes along well with fuchun tea.
Dazhu gansi seems easy to prepare but actually involves many steps. The freshness of ham and dried shrimp meat must be absorbed into the tofu strips and there can't be any trace of oil or bean smell. Be it the choosing of ingredients, cutting technique or process of making the food, every step embodies a meticulous character Yangzhou trait and their spirit of striving for the best in life.
Dazhu gansi requires excellent skills in cutting. The smoked tofu must first be cut into thin slices, using a knife that is moistened with water or slightly greased. This helps to prevent the slices from sticking onto the knife. The tofu is then sliced at a particular angle, all at one go so that the slices are equal in size. Finally, the tofu slices are piled then cut into thin shreds. One smoked tofu can produce over a thousand shreds, with each shred no thicker than a matchstick. Three or four pieces of smoked tofu can fill a bowl after being shredded.
Dazhu gansi must be cooked on high heat in a large batch of chicken broth without oil. This is known as “dazhu”, as used in the name of this dish. When the broth starts to boil, put in the shredded dried tofu and slightly mix, then add shredded ham and dried shrimp meat. Put some salt and place the ingredients on a bowl after cooking for an hour. When transferring, the broth must be drained and the ingredients are put into the bowl. The “bowl-shaped” ingredients are then placed onto a soup plate and topped with the broth. The ingredients used in dazhu gansi vary according to seasons. In spring, razor clams are added; in summer, shredded eel crisps are cooked with the tofu; in autumn, crab roes are used; in winter, vegetables make the dish more appetising.
In Yangzhou and Taizhou, there is one dish similar to dazhu gansi prepared by using shredded dried tofu soaked repeatedly in boiling water. The water is then drained and the shredded tofu is topped with sesame oil, soy sauce, shredded dried shrimp meat and ginger. This refreshing dish is known as tanggansi (scalded shredded tofu).
Scalding and boiling are two different techniques that require different duration and degree of heating. Scalding refers to putting the ingredients in boiling water to remove any odour and makes them brittle. When the heat is turned off and the temperature dropped, the remaining heat is being slowly absorbed by the ingredients while water is being retained. Boiling lets the ingredients absorb the heat from boiling water until cooked.
Zhu Ziqing (1898–1948, a Chinese writer), a Yangzhou native, recalled tanggansi from his hometown while he was in Beijing. He described in writing the cooking method of tanggansi. One line fully describes the charm of the dish, “Tanggansi is so mild that it doesn't hinder you from eating the rest of the food.”
Are diners there to eat the shredded tofu or drink the tasty broth? Without the broth, the shredded tofu wouldn't taste as good. But without shredded tofu, the dish is nothing but a bowl of broth. The broth is delicious because it is a concentration of many ingredients like pork bones and chicken bones. The broth is absorbed by shredded tofu, making it a delectable dish. The complicated logic behind this dish conveys a simple philosophy of life.
In one story, a successful man who had eaten delicacies from different restaurants still missed tofu soup with vegetables cooked by his wife. Many found it hard to understand why. Later, his wife explained that each morning she would buy fresh crabs from the market and stew it. She would then use the crab broth as the soup base, and add vegetables and tofu. The crab broth made the ordinary dish exceptionally tasty. Like this homemade dish, dazhu gansi's broth is first prepared with chicken and shrimp meat before shredded tofu is added.
A dish like dazhu guansi seems ordinary but in fact contains a deep cultural essence. Treasures may well be hidden in what seems like a normal life. We should try to relax and appreciate the beauty of life, the same way we would enjoy a plate of dazhu gansi.