A sweet addition to my food adventures in Hong Kong is tofu pudding, called “dau fu fa” or bean curd jello. As a part of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage, tofu pudding is a simple dessert in contrast with Hong Kong’s fusion dessert trend. 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. The soft tofu has a smooth and silky texture, and it can be served hot or cold, making it a delicacy for any weather.
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 dau fu fa that I saw just how much food plays a part in this culture's yearning for the past.
Hidden in the midst of Sham Shui Po’s street markets, Kung Wo has been around for a long time making soy products from scratch. They have been operating since 1958. I had the hardest time finding this place since I had no idea what it was called and barely knew my way around the area. Serving up silky smooth tofu pudding, sweet delicious soy milk and tasty tofu squares smeared with fish paste, Kung Wo is one of Hong Kong’s hidden gems. If you’re in the area, definitely hunt this hole in the wall down and enjoy a delicious bowl of tofu pudding or two.
In Hong Kong, texture is everything. and Kung Wo credits the pudding’s silkiness as the reason for its popularity. People in Hong Kong like their food as soft as jelly. In Taiwan, for example, people prefer the tofu to be harder and chewy. Both are tasty, but it’s just different. The best way to serve tofu pudding with no cracks is when 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 Kung Wo, 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 Hong Kongers just put raw sugar or ginger syrup on top.
Kung Wo’s tofu pudding is still made by a 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. Kung Wo uses a granite stone mill. The beans lie in-between the stones, so it is a very gentle grinding process to soften the beans and turn them to liquid. This step helps make Kung Wo's tofu pudding very smooth.
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. Now they have lots of different types of desserts to choose form, but it’s funny, people still want to find something more original.
As I sat down to take a spoonful of my tofu pudding, simply sprinkled with a layer of raw cane sugar, a couple on the table next to me told me that they were visiting from Canada but grew up in Hong Kong, and always come for a bowl of Kung Wo's tofu pudding on their visits. They said when they were little they didn't have McDonalds and having tofu pudding is the childhood memory for them. They also said it's nothing special - it's just a memory. For them it's comfort food, it’s what they love.
Tofu pudding is not just pudding, it gives people a sense of nostalgia.