Thursday, October 19, 2006

nostalgia with more than a pinch of chilli

Last week I had a massive buy up at the large Chinese grocery store opposite Vic Market. I needed new bamboo steamers, the largest that could fit my wok, to mark in my own strange way the growth in my household. Those itty-bitty single-girl size steamers just wouldn’t do anymore!

I only allow myself to wander around the store when I have adequate time left on the parking meter It’s a bit like entering a black hole, as I amble down the spice aisle, check out the Japanese food section and see what new bowls are in stock down the back of the shop. The store is also a soy wonderland, selling every product from the bean imaginable. The fridge is full to the brim with tofu in every form but it was the dried varieties in a dusty aisle that got me. In the end I trotted out with bean curd skins in every hue, determined to make some forgotten treasures.

I can no longer find the recipe, but I remember the inheritance of the first dish I ate made with dried bean curd sticks. In one of the houses I lived in, the last time I was a student, only one of the residents was home for the initial interview. We chatted away amicably, but the conversation really fired up when we hit the topic of food. In the end he just opened the fridge door, as if to say “This is who I am”. There was an instant connection and the rest, as they say, is history.

Some time later the housemate came home with tales of a vegetarian curry made by his sister, which he set about reproducing at the soonest opportunity. It featured the oddest little bundles of not-quite-tofu. Dried bean curd sticks, or bamboo yuba, are actually a by-product of soy milk manufacturing. It is made from the skin that forms on the top when the milk is heated. This is skimmed off and dried in sheets, either flat (yuba, used as a “skin” to wrap other ingredients in before steaming or frying) or bundled into sticks or knots. The dried sticks look yellow and leathery, but are surprisingly light. They are also extremely cheap and have a close to unlimited shelf life.

The curry was coconut based with root vegetables. I remember the sauce becoming trapped in the bundled layers of the bean curd skin, releasing it as I chewed. In the aisle of the Chinese grocery store all this came back to me and I decided it was time to honour this humble food and make my own version of this long forgotten dish.

To cook with bamboo yuba, it’s easier to break the bundles into smaller lengths and soak in cold water, either over night or a good few hours ahead of cooking. As the skin rehydrates it swell up but still remains curled up together.

The curry I made was predominantly pumpkin. I had the remains of a sweet chunk of Jap that had been so tasty in the red lentil and pumpkin soup on the weekend. The sweetness, I knew would also marry well with the blandness of the yuba and smoothness of the coconut milk. I made a Thai red curry, following the lazy template of my curry in a hurry recipe. However, there were a few fresh spices asking to be used so I jazzed the premade paste up with some coriander root, ginger and chilli pounded together in the mortar and pestle, and adjusted the flavour once the coconut was added with the juice of a lime I found on my tree and a generous splash or 3 of fish sauce. Once the sauce was simmering I added thin wedges of onion, cubes of pumpkin, potato and the soaked bamboo yuba cut into lengths of about 3-4 cm. Towards the end I tossed in some zucchini and served the curry on brown rice.

Eating the meal brought back a range of complicated emotions, from time in that little innercity house to camping trips in the dessert, with characters that no longer inhabit my life. Like the curry the memories were sweet and spicy, making a nostalgic but satisfying meal with a kick.

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Blogger plum said...

I have never known what to do with those! Thanks for the advice.

4:07 pm  

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