So my dad does this kind of funny, mostly annoying thing where he compares any given ethnic dish to another one from another nation. Once, in Chengdu, we stopped at a vendor peddling stir-fried, spiced potatoes along an ancient mountain footpath. "Hey, this is just like... home-fried jack-fried potatoes!" (pretty sure he meant the kind of diner-style home fries, usually served with flapjacks). Filipino-Chinese lumpia, which are like giant spring rolls stuffed with vegetables and minced meat, become "Chinese burritos"; Uighur flatbreads are ordained as "Xinjiang pitta". Vietnamese pho ga is, of course, "Asian chicken noodle soup." And all of us -- my best friend included -- are like, "Just let it be itself!"
So when I say that this salad tastes like chicken noodle soup, I'm neither saying it's so ordinary it "tastes like chicken," nor am I saying it's a chicken noodle soup, but not. It has all the flavour components and the familiarity of that famous cold-weather salve; you can imagine the moment my eyes popped as I munched on the celery, carrot and mild tofu seasoned with chicken stockand thought, "wait a minute... this tofu salad isn't far too exotic, after all."
First off, THAT TOFU, THOUGH: Now this tofu is an interesting ingredient to familiarize yourself with. It's mostly known as "tofu bamboo" / fuzhu / 腐竹 because of its stick shape, but I call it tofu crêpe because its outstanding quality is the ultra-fine, rippled sheet form, achieved by boiling soy milk, letting it cool then dragging at the surface skin that forms the same way as with hot milk. This skin is gathered into a stick form, doubled over into a U-shape and dried, perfect for hibernating in your cupboard until it's needed and then easily re-hydrated. It has a satisfying bite and ruffly texture to keep things interesting.
Did you know that the 3-Michelin-starred Alinea had, at one point, also served this humble Chinese ingredient (for a hundred times the price and twice as much esteem)? Last month in Shanghai, my friend Camden and I went to the movie night at The Grumpy Pig, to watch the foodie documentary Spinning Plates featuring Alinea; one of the "absurd" dishes chef Grant Achatz describes and shows on cameras centers on their homemade tofu skin sticks.
Yes, ye olde Chinese were the first molecular gastronomists -- and I do mean that seriously. If you think about it, tofu alone is a solid example of the Chinese urge to shape, manipulate and re-configure nature; take some soybeans, then see what happens when you boil it, then culture it, then maybe strain out the water to varying degrees, and while you're at it why not take the byproduct (like the skin) and form that into different shapes, then maybe even smoke it. Because why eat soybeans as their boring ol' selves?
Unlike at Alinea (or ye olde China) it won't be necessary to boil and skim off your own tofu skin; they are available at Chinese supermarkets for pennies and preparing them won't even require knowledge of how to boil water -- just snap apart to fit into a big bowl and let them soak in room temperature water for 2 hour (or overnight in the fridge).
Also: BLANCHED SALAD. You'll see that the carrots and celery go through a flash blanch. Try it, and you will never salad the same way again. Having grown up in the U.S. and adopted the raw veggie crunching way of life, I fancied myself RAW and HARDCORE to see the flinching faces of older Chinese folks who could not understand the barbaric consumption of uncooked, hard vegetables parading under a fancy name like crudités. Then I started eating cold vegetables salads here, where almost all the veggies had previously been graced with a lick of heat and noticed a difference -- flavours popped, textures refined (but most importantly remained crunchy), colours brightened.
You'll see the most dramatic difference in the celery -- behold the before and after pictures here. If you've ever eaten the at-one-point trendy "compressed" pineapples or "compressed" cucumbers served at fancy restaurants (in which the pineapple or cucumber is put through a vacuum sealing machine), you'll be familiar with the sort of weird and sublime uniformity of texture that happens. It's like all the molecules lined up for role call and formed military-straight queues, equally space apart and not one toe out of line... and then, crunchiness. I don't know if that makes sense... so just try it, trust me.
Another thing: SLICE LIKE A NINJA. I don't know what the Chinese equivalent of a ninja is (no, samurais are also Japanese)... but you want to slice like the Chinese do. They attach importance to how certain ingredients are sliced, the size and shape and overall harmony of all chopped things nestled in one bowl, because how you slice something determines mouthfeel, which affects taste, which affects the prioritization of enjoying food rather than just eating it. In this salad everything is sliced at and angle but uniform in length, but the carrots are sliced into thin parallelograms for a softer, more papery crunch... here's the step-by-step:
Lastly, PEANUTS: Toast, not roast. Many Northern Chinese cooks like to add freshly wok-roasted, red-skinned peanuts onto their salads. I also love these toasty flavour that takes the edge off of all that veg 'n vinegar. But who's got time to stand at a wok and robotically clash, clash, flip the little nugs for 20 non-stop minutes over an open flame? I scienced it up and formulated a fail-proof method for a toaster oven (which probably works just as well in a conventional oven for bigger batches): 160*C for 10 minutes. Just set the timer and do the rest of the prep while they toast. You can even do this ahead of time and after they've completely cooled, keep them in a sealed plastic bag for 3 months. If you miss the glossy sheen that comes with wok-roasting in oil, just add a few drops to the cooled peanuts and shake it up.
Final note about the FLAVOUR: You can skip the chicken stock and use vegetable stock; or just skip the stock entirely and let the roasted sesame oil and/or chili oil take the lead.
Tofu "Bamboo", Celery & Carrot Salad (That Tastes Quite Like a Nice Bowl of Chicken Noodle Soup)
Tofu "bamboo": 4 U-shaped rods or 8 sticks (measuring about 26-28cm long)
2 sprigs of celery, sliced diagonally to ½ cm thick
1 small carrot, peeled and “diamond”-sliced 2 mm thin
1 tsp sesame oil
1/8 tsp organic chicken or vegetable stock powder (or stock cube, grated)
A small handful of roasted skin-on peanuts, optional (roasting method here)
¼ tsp Sichuan peppercorn chili oil, optional
Fill a large bowl or pot with room-temperature water. Drop in the tofu sticks and let them rehydrate for 2 hours, or overnight in the fridge.
Bring a stockpot of water to a rolling boil and prepare a bowlful of ice-cold water. Drop in the sliced celery, count to 60 then ladle out with a perforated scoop and drop it into the cold water. Add the sliced carrots to the boiling water, count to 30 then scoop out and add to the bowl of cold water. Drain and set the blanched celery and carrots aside.
When the tofu sticks are rehydrated, still bouncy and firm, drain lightly on kitchen paper then slice diagonally to match the length of the celery and carrots. Add to your serving dish, along with the celery and carrots.
Add the sesame oil, stock powder and chili oil (if using). Toss, taste and add more stock powder or salt if needed; it should taste quite savoury, not bland.
Top with the peanuts, if using.