Hydrangea tofu soup, a staple of Huaiyang cuisine, is a testament to the impressive knife-cutting skills of chefs specializing in this type of Chinese cuisine.
Looking at a bowl of this dish for the first time, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the slender tendrils swaying in chicken broth for anything but regular tofu, as It looks like a white hydrangea, hence its name, but it could also be some sort of edible sea anemone.
Actually, it’s really a block of tofu carefully cut 60 times in one direction, then turned around and cut another 60 times in order to create 3,600 (!!!) delicate tendrils.
Of course It’s challenging to make, because the tofu needs to be sliced just three-fifths in, otherwise, it will break apart and the flower illusion will be ruined.
Dating back 1,500 years to the Sun and Yuan dynasties (581-1368), Huaiyang cuisine originated from the indigenous cooking style of the area around the lower Huai and Yangtze rivers, centered in cities such as Huai’an, Yangzhou and Zhenjiang of Jiangsu province.
Unlike other more popular Chinese cuisines, Huaiyang is known less for its dishes and more for the cutting skills of its chefs.
As story goes, Emperor Qianlong (1736 – 1796) visited the Jiangnan region 7 times, and because the people knew they couldn’t compete with the cuisines of other regions to impress the monarch, they decided to become knife masters instead. Since then, Huaiyang chefs have become known as some of the best knife wielders in the world!
Either way Chen Xiaohe, the executive chef of 10 Shanghai, a popular Huaiyang cuisine restaurant in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay says that mastering the cutting skills required to create perfect tofu hydrangeas requires between 3 and 6 years of practice.
The chef himself claims he needed five years to master the several cutting techniques of Huaiyang, and practiced with rolled newspapers to improve his skill.
When cutting the soft tofu, the block is placed between two sliced radishes top keep it stable, and a scalion is placed in front of it as a rudimentary measuring stick. If the knife cuts through the scalion, the chef knows he cut to deep into the tofu so the artistic dish is ruined.
If hydrangea tofu soup isn’t the most complex dish in terms of ingredients, consisting of soft tofu, chicken broth, crab and the optional shiitake mushrooms, the unique way in which the tofu is sliced makes it unique in terms of texture.
“Why do we make 3,600 cuts into the tofu? It satisfies the different textures,” chef Chen Xiaohe said. “You’ll think ‘Is this really tofu? How can it be so smooth and thin?’ Secondly, when you eat it, it doesn’t feel like tofu in your mouth, the tofu threads taste smooth, tender and they are full of flavor from the broth.”
Images from web – Google Research