Fermented beancurd and Monk’s Vegetables

I don’t quite know whether I bought the ingredients specially for this dish or whether I made the dish because I had the ingredients. Still, no matter. I do know where it started though – with fermented beancurd. I’d read lots about this strange stuff and when I read that it described as a chinese version of cheese I knew I had to have it. But it remained elusive for quite some time. I started to dream of it and search on-line to see where I could get it from. Finally I made a semi-special trip to Birmingham so I could get my hands on this cheesy delight.

When I got it though, my bravery disappeared. I read articles saying that it made people vomit; I saw someone on Gordon Ramsey’s F Word trying it in conjunction with lots of other stinky nasties. My cheesy dream was turning into a nightmare.

Then, someone posted about fermented beancurd on the BBC Food message board and my interest was reawakened, I was particularly taken with a dish called Monk’s Vegetables, or Lo Han Zhai. It looked like a perfect, naturally vegan way to try my beancurd. It also contained dried beancurd sticks, another strange ingredient that was clogging up my cupboards. But annoyingly, it also contained more ingredients that I didn’t think I’d be able to find anywhere – dried red dates and lily buds. Grrr. Operation fermented beancurd shelved again.

A few weeks later someone at work mentioned a new Chinese supermarket that had opened near to me. I dashed off there in a hurry and – yay!!! Both dried red dates and lily buds!! Monk’s Vegetables would be mine!!

All the recipes I could find were different so I decided to just guess at amounts and based the ingredients on this web album. Sunflower often posts on the BBC message boards and is a superb encyclopedia of knowledge on chinese food. I followed it exactly and had no idea how it would turn out. My husband was very suspicious so I made some home made spring rolls to serve with it just in case the stinky cheese proved to be too much for us!

There was a fair bit of chopping involved but it was all very easy, even without a direct recipe. The finished result was something very different to any sort of chinese food we’ve had before. The dried beancurd sticks were lovely; a very meaty texture. The fermented beancurd seemed to mellow amazingly as soon as it hit the pan and to be honest I could probably have used more, but we could definitely detect a savoury, umami taste that I suppose could be described as slightly cheesy. I was very proud of my attempts and it isn’t often you get to try cooking with 4 brand new ingredients in one meal.

I will be revisiting these ingredients soon!

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