Sup Tauhu

Tasting this soup always brings me back to my childhood when our family would make day trips to Bukit Rambai, Melaka, to visit our relatives that resided in the village that my father’s family grew up in. After around an hour’s drive on the superfast highway to Alor Gajah, my father would take a backroad that offered its passengers a more scenic and leisurely ride to my Aunt Nancy’s (Makkoh) house. I would always marvel at the red oxide soil that exuded a slight metallic smell in the air. And on top of the martian-like top soil, we could see small patches of pepper vines growing on bamboo stilts that would sometimes be weighed down by batches of green peppercorns. It must be sheer ingenuity and necessity that these spicy beads were incorporated as the prominent element in this quick yet full-flavored soup.

Tofu is a rather bland ingredient that is featured in this soup. However, in this recipe we see how the Peranakans have taken this Chinese staple in another direction that is typically Nyonya in its approach. Instead of a mild-flavored soup, like the rather similar Hokkien version, here we have a bold and full-flavored backdrop so that the tofu can act as a counterpart with its smooth and bland qualities. The strong flavors in the soup come from the use of garlic, shallots, Belacan (shrimp paste), dried salted fish, white peppercorns, and the garnishing of young Chinese celery and spring onion add strong herbal flavors.  

In making this recipe, I prefer the traditional way of pounding the shallots and garlic in the mortar and pestle in order to extract more flavors into the soup, just like how my grandmothers would. Make sure you get the medium-firm or medium-soft tofu that is fresh. Also, do not use the salted fish product called Bacalao, but instead look for salted Ikan Kurau bones, or even dried Chinese Croaker will do.  You may find young Chinese celery in most Asian Markets as its flavor is more subtle than regular celery.   

My father would relish his favorite soup with some spicy and tangy samban belacan condiment on the pieces of Tofu and shrimp. I am sure you will enjoy this rather complex, spicy, and soul-satisfying Nyonya soup.  

Serves 4

Preparation Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 40 minutes

1 teaspoon white peppercorns, whole 

1 clove garlic, peeled and roughly chopped

5 small or 50 grams shallots, peeled and roughly chopped

1 inch (2.5 cm) Belacan/Shrimp Paste (1 teaspoon powder or ½ tsp paste)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

4½ cups water

2 – 3 pieces dried salted fish, preferably bones only (around 40 gms/1.5 oz)

½ teaspoon salt 

200 grams/7 oz medium-firm or medium-soft tofu, cut into bite-size pieces

100 grams/3.5 oz small shrimp, shelled (or medium size shrimp, cut into ½-inch pieces) 

2 stalks Chinese celery (Cantonese: kahn choy) or Celery leaves, roughly chopped 

2 stalks spring onion, chopped finely

White pepper, ground

Crush the white peppercorns in a mortar until there are still some small bits, not too fine. Remove and reserve. 

In the mortar, crush the garlic, shallots, and Belacan together into a fine paste.  Remove and reserve. 

In a pot on medium heat, add the oil, and fry the processed paste until aromatic (around 4 minutes) – make sure not to brown the paste too much. Add the water, white peppercorns, and salted fish bones. Cover, bring to boil, and reduce the flame to simmer fairly gently for 30 minutes.  

Meanwhile, prepare the tofu, shrimp, Chinese celery, and green onions according to the ingredient list.

After the soup has simmered for 30 minutes, and add ½ teaspoon salt or to taste. Raise the flame to medium, add the tofu and shrimp, and cook until the shrimp is just cooked (1 to 2 minutes).  

Add Chinese celery and turn flame off.

To serve, pour soup into a large bowl, and garnish it with spring onions and a pinch of white pepper.  

Serve with sambal belacan (recipe) on the side.

My ebook on the Baba Nyonya Peranakan culture is now available for ALL COUNTRIES at USD $9.99. Please visit the main page or CLICK HERE.

Itek Tim

The Peranakans are very fond of duck, especially when it is made into this savory and sour soup. However, they believe that duck meat is very rich and frequent consumption may overwork one’s digestive system, which is why there are only a handful of duck recipes in the Peranakan culinary repertoire. Therefore, this dish was served infrequently at home but made a special appearance during certain auspicious days like Chinese New Year, the eve of a wedding, birthdays, funerals, and religious celebrations. However, due to its association with religious events, some traditional families refrain from serving it during ceremonies; I’m including it as it was my family’s tradition to do so. My Chinese relatives and houseguests would help themselves to a second serving when it was served for special dinners, relishing the wonderful flavors found in this full-bodied yet rather simple soup.

My paternal grandmother, Madam Lee Khoon Thye, was quite well known for her rendition of this dish. She was much sought after for her culinary skills both in savory dishes and desserts, a feat not achieved by many Nyonyas. Local Peranakan families would ask her to prepare the classic dishes, this duck soup included, and desserts for special occasions like weddings and special dinners. She became a master of Nyonya cooking both out of love for the cuisine and the sheer necessity of supporting her family as a single mother by selling her food products. Unlike many versions of this recipe, she kept the dish rather simple, omitting the use of other sour ingredients like the pickled plums found in other versions. The pickled mustard vegetable and the tamarind slices are sufficient enough to bring the sour element, which in turn balances out the rich duck flavor.

This recipe requires the dried slice form of tamarind (asam keping or asam gelugur) that is sometimes difficult to find outside Malaysia. However, if necessary, they may be substituted with preserved plums in vinegar and salt, but not with tamarind paste since the broth has to be quite clear. When buying the pickled mustard vegetable, buy the kind from China—not the local Malaysian one, which tends to be leafier—and preferably found in vats in Asian stores; they have fewer chemicals and preservatives.

Just before serving, a piece of fresh chili is torn into the bowl before filling it with the hot soup, adding a piquant bite that makes the soup even more irresistible. The shot of brandy added to the soup is important to mask any gamey flavor from the duck. I always insisted on adding an extra shot in the kitchen before it was brought out to the dining room. No doubt this made everyone love the soup even more! 

Serves 4 to 6

Preparation time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

½ duck (1 kilogram or 2 pounds), skin on, washed well, jointed and breast cut into three pieces

300 grams (10½ ounces) pickled mustard vegetable (Cantonese: humm choy), leaves separated, soaked in water for 30 minutes, then drained, cut into large pieces

2.5 centimeters (1 inch) fresh ginger root, peeled and lightly crushed

12 pieces dried tamarind slices (Malay: asam keping/asam gelugur), or 9 pickled plums, lightly smashed

1 large tomato, cut into bite-size pieces

Salt

1 to 2 fresh Finger Hot red chili peppers

1 tablespoon brandy

  1. In a large pot, place the duck, the pickled mustard vegetables, ginger, tamarind slices (or pickled plums), and enough water to cover the duck. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium-low heat until the meat barely falls off the bone, about 1 hour. Skim the fat off during this process.
  2. Remove the tamarind slices once the soup is sour enough to your preference. Add more slices if it is not sour enough and boil for 10 minutes more—it has to be quite sour. Add more boiling water if necessary. Add the tomato for the last 10 minutes. Season with salt if necessary, which it may not be if using pickled plums.
  3. When ready to serve, break the chili pepper(s) into the serving bowl before pouring the soup into it, then add the brandy.

The soup can be made a day ahead for a better flavor. Pork bones can be added at the same time as the duck, to add more flavor to the soup.

My ebook on the Baba Nyonya Peranakan culture is now available for ALL COUNTRIES at USD $9.99. Please visit the main page or CLICK HERE.