We don't get friends from Malaysia willing to come all the way to the suburbs to see us very often, especially since we don't live in some place hip and happening like, oh you know, Orchard Road or the likes of it. So when the wonderful Joanne and her daughter Adrienne were in town and wanted to meet, a dinner party was quickly arranged over Twitter. As Vijay and I sat down to plan the menu, we decided to each make a dish to knock the socks off our guests. His mother's famous chicken kicap would not disappoint. I, on the other hand, had spent days twiddling my thumbs over my choice of arsenal. With another mate Joey to come with tomato bruchettas, chicken tacos and a bread butter pudding, it would only make sense for us to keep everything else light but in no way lacking.
In the end I decided to risk it and make something new - a traditional dish from my childhood, loved by my late father and something that would impress Joanne's Hakka half. A recipe I'd have to call my mother for due to my memory the size of a split pea. Luckily I did. Had I winged it without prior consultation with Mum, who practically trumped late Dad with her Hakka cooking, I would've left out the fish paste and ended up with a stir fried tofu which would not be quite so... loose. "Ahhhh...." I see some of you going. Yes, that's the meaning of sung (鬆) in Cantonese. Soft bean curd is to be tossed with minced pork and fish paste, perked up with some aromatics and spiked with salted fish, producing a light, fluffy yet equally flavorful alternative to the much loved minced meat sauce.
Mum used to pound her own fish paste from deboned Spanish mackerel (in Cantonese ma yau yue, 馬鮫魚) or wolf herring fish (in Cantonese sai tou yue, 西刀鱼). Wolf herring is superior of the two. It produces a bouncier fish paste, favored by the best Chinese fish ball noodle stalls in Malaysia and Singapore but it also comes with a truckload more bones than the mackerel. Late Dad used to drive Mum nuts by requesting tofu sung and her kick ass yong tau foo every now and then, sourcing the freshest wolf herring he could find from his favorite monger. When she eventually started to wave her meat cleaver at him, tired of pin boning huge fillets of sai tou yue week after week, he would slyly come back with slices of ma yau instead.
Since we were pressed for time for the dinner, I bought ready made fish paste from my local wet market actually meant for stuffing yong tau foo, a move I'd never make again. This was a workable short cut but really not the best idea for this dish. The paste was slightly wet due to the addition of corn starch to allow it to adhere better as a stuffing and proceeded to release a lot of liquid in the cooking process. I had to drain the moisture away a couple of times to avoid braising the ingredients instead of adequately frying them into golden brown deliciousness. If you're not up for mincing your own fish paste then try to source for a less adulterated version at your market, possibly harder to come by but really worth the exploration.
I was however, quite elated to find a jar of mui heong (梅香) salted fish from my neighborhood market's dry grocer. Mui heong salted fish - the best quality there is, prepared from the Spanish mackerel (notice the trend here?), is kept moist using oil brine instead of coming in dry and tough pieces laden with salt. Expect to pay much more for these fresh, fragrant and less pungent slices of preserve. The good stuff would be coming from the east coast fishing states of Peninsula Malaysia. I managed to find these bottled ones, which I've not seen before while I was staying in Malaysia, and was quite chuffed to get a compliment from the grocer uncle for my good (and ultimately expensive but really, not snobbish) taste.
Not all non-halal Chinese dishes could be easily converted to something that our Muslim Joey could eat but this was one of them. If using chicken like I did, go for the more flavorful and better textured thigh meat, skin on. Add some chicken fat to the mince. Chicken fat can be requested free from your poultry seller, containing the trimmed off fat layers and bits of excess skin. When adjusting your seasoning, add the salt and soy sauce with caution, according to the potency of your salted fish. Don't be alarmed though, if this comes out a little over the top than your everyday stir fry as this mince, like most, is meant to be great with bowls of rice, porridge or noodles.
So a feast we had, completing the menu with ginger scallion noodles. While Vijay's soy sauce chicken was wiped out and got Joanne asking for the recipe, we got to live on the taco chicken and this mince leftover the following week - one of the many joys of cooking up a storm for friends. This tasted even better as it aged, like most stews and salted fish dishes tend to. Our no-cooking-weekday dinners were made blissful and Vijay even ate the last bits of this straight from the pot on a Friday - the fact that he's vegetarian on this day completely slipped my mind - remember the split pea? I wasn't kidding, and yes, this has happened more than once.
Relatively simple to make (I say relatively because mincing meat on your own with a cleaver boots the recipe out from the 'easy' category instantly), tofu sung provides that warm, fuzzy, home cooked comfort food effect. Something I can't order from a restaurant, something I'll have to call my mother to thank her for. This will quickly become one of our minced meat staple, a Hakka creation I'm grateful to have revisited from my kitchen and can hopefully convince you to do the same from yours.
Hakka Tofu Sung (Salted Fish Tofu with Meat, 客家豆腐鬆)
Serves 8 to 10.
Prep time 20 minutes, cook time approximately 25 minutes.
Note: This halal version of the dish was specially made for our friend Muslim friend, Joey. Traditionally it's made with minced pork belly or pork shoulder. As the dish is really only flavored with the salted fish, garlic and scallions, avoid substituting with red meat as those would require additional seasonings or herbs.
- 1 kilogram boneless chicken thighs
- 1 kilogram mackerel fish paste
- 50 grams chicken fat
- 5 pieces medium (semi-soft) tofu
- 6 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 2-3 stalks scallions, finely sliced
- 30 grams mackerel/mui heong salted fish, deboned and finely minced
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce (optional)
- salt and pepper to taste
- peanut or vegetable oil for frying
Pat dry the chicken thighs with paper towels. Cut the chicken pieces and chicken fat into cubes. With a cleaver over a heavy chopping board, mince the chicken and fat pieces. You can do this with a food processor but the texture will not be the same as hand mincing. Season the mince with some sesame oil and pepper, set aside. With a fork, break the tofu into smaller pieces, drain any excess liquid and set aside.
Heat up the oil in a large wok or heavy bottomed saucepan. Add in the garlic and minced chicken. Toss well and cook till chicken is half done, about 6-8 minutes. Add in the fish paste and quickly break it up into small pieces with the spatula. Mix well with the minced chicken and cook till fish and meat are almost done and mixture is dry, about 6-8 minutes. Add in the salted fish and broken tofu. At this point, add some oil if the mixture is too dry. Toss frequently and cook till the tofu has released all its moisture and begin to stick to the wok, about 6 minutes. Add in the scallion, leaving some for garnish. Check the seasoning; add salt and soy sauce accordingly.
Dish out into a serving bowl, garnish with some scallions and serve with rice, noodles or porridge. Mince keeps well covered in the refrigerator for up to one week.