Dazhugansi, Shred­ded Tofu in Chicken Broth

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Png Yu Fung Edited by Mark Zuiderveld

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.

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