Red Braised Wheat Gluten Kao Fu 紅燒烤麩
By Ellen L. Published: 2016-09-05
Chinese cuisine is well known for its vegetarian fare, indeed whole Chinese restaurants can be found devoted to vegetarian foods only! And if you visit a Chinese monastery you will often find the unexpected delight of enjoying a fine vegetarian meal during your visit. (Chinese people always take very good care of their tummies, wherever they are.) Do be forewarned, however, that just because it's vegetarian fare, don't expect the Chinese to give up their daily meat intake!
Whaaaaaat the hey, you say?!
What I mean is that Chinese vegetarian dishes are mainly based around 'mock' meats: mock duck, mock chicken, mock pork, you name it, they've got it. And these fake meats are mostly cleverly made from tofu and wheat gluten. Determined to make my own vegetarian dish, I first made my homemade wheat gluten kao fu (see our kao fu recipe here) and then cooked up the classic Shanghainese Red Braised Wheat Gluten Kao Fu 紅燒烤麩, a simple yet yummilicious vegetarian dish of soy sauce braised kao fu wheat gluten, mushrooms, bamboo and wood ears. Tis so satisfying to your tastebuds and filling to your tummy!
|Our homemade Kao Fu 烤麩|
The star of this dish is kao fu or 烤麩, which is wheat gluten which is steamed or boiled to create a spongy airy texture that is pleasant to chew and absorbs sauce and flavors like crazy. What is wheat gluten, then, you're asking? Wheat gluten is the thing in flour that you develop as you knead dough, stretching out in the oven to create that lovely airy thing known as risen bread. You can extract the wheat gluten from the flour by forming a dough and then washing the flour out. We made our own wheat gluten, it's surprising easy to do, just takes a wee bit of time. If you haven't the time, you can get it at asian grocery stores or sometimes at the wet market stalls that sell tofu.
The kao fu with its chewy tender meaty texture is the vegetarian version of meat in this dish. I think it's supposed to represent pork or beef slices. Kao fu may not look like much but it just soaks in the flavors of the red braise becoming lusciously juicy and flavorful in the process. Plus I love the squeaks it makes when I chew it!
Remember to look for steamed wheat gluten mian jin 蒸麵筋 or boiled wheat gluten kao fu 烤麩 and not the deep fried wheat gluten. Deep fried wheat gluten, also known as oil fried mian jin 油麵筋, has a very yummy but totally different texture. (See our homemade recipe for both types of wheat gluten here.)
The other star of this dish is dried shiitake mushrooms 冬菇 which are a must for the Chinese kitchen pantry. Don't use fresh shiitake mushrooms, it's totally not the same thing. When dried, these shiitake mushroom's flavor is intensified and concentrated to mushroomy nirvana. Added to a braise it is a good way to add a whole new level of flavor. Plus the mushroom caps, here used whole or in halves, are deliciously meaty and satisfying to eat.
When buying look for plump clean looking mushrooms that smell really mushroomy. You don't have to get expensive ones to have good enough flavor, though I must say I've seen these mushrooms sold at prices that drop the jaw. Do try to have a sniff, that will tell you a lot about the flavor.
To prepare the dried mushroom, soak in hot water for 1-2 hours. They are ready to use as soon as you think you can slice through them with your knife or kitchen scissors. I use scissors to cut the stems off. You can discard the stems or keep them for flavoring stock, but be sure to keep the mushroom soaking water to add to the braising liquid!
Besides the above two main ingredients of kao fu and dried mushroom, you can of course add a variety of other interesting tidbits for flavor and texture, as long as they are vegetarian. This time I added cloud ear fungus, or 雲耳, lovely for their contrasting slippery tenderness, and soy bean sprouts, for their light vegetable crunch of the stalk and the crunchy nuttiness of the yellow bean head. Other classic additions to this dish are sliced winter bamboo shoots, dried lily buds 黄花菜(also known as golden needles 金針) and peanuts. If you use peanuts be sure to boil them at least one hour first until soft before adding them into the braise.
You've probably noticed that I've been talking about texture a lot and that, the texture, is really what it's all about in this vegetarian dish. The flavor of this Red Braised Wheat Gluten Kao Fu is the classic combination soy sauce, sugar and rice wine infused with the intenseness of the mushrooms. Everything else is essentially neutral in taste, absorbing the red braised sauce it is cooked in and offering its unique texture as its contribution to the dish. Every item in this dish has a unique texture and that is what I think makes this dish so yummilicious and such an enduring Shanghainese classic.
Red Braised Wheat Gluten Kao Fu Recipe 紅燒烤麩
(Recreated from my memory of my Grandma's recipe)
12 pieces wheat gluten kao fu 烤麩 (see our homemade wheat gluten kao fu recipe)
12 small dried chinese shiitake mushrooms 冬菇
8 pieces cloud ears 雲耳
1 handful dried lily buds 黄花菜
1/2 cup sliced bamboo shoots 冬筍
4 tbsp oil
1 1/2 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 1/2 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp Shao Hsing rice wine
1 tsp sugar
3/4 cup mushroom soaking water, reserved from soaking of dried mushrooms
1 tbsp sesame oil
Soak the dried mushrooms in hot water for 1-2 hours. Slice off the stems, reserving the soaking liquid. If mushrooms are quite large then slice into halves or quarters, whatever is bite sized. Soak cloud ears in warm water for 15 mins. Trim the woody stem and cut into bite sized pieces. Soak dried lily bulbs in warm water for 30 mins. Trim off the woody ends. Slice the bamboo shoots lengthwise into strips 1/8" thick.
Heat wok over medium high heat. Add 1 tbsp oil. Add in the bamboo shoots and stir fry for 1 min to extract water. Remove bamboo shoots from wok. Add 3 tbsp oil to hot wok, then the wheat gluten kao fu, mushrooms, cloud ears and lily buds. Stir fry 1 minute, then add in the bamboo shoots. Lower heat and add in the dark and light soy sauce, rice wine, sugar and the reserved mushroom soaking liquid, cover and simmer for 30 mins. Be sure to have some hot water at hand to add to the pot if the level of the braising liquid reduces too low. You should have a scant half inch of braising liquid left as the end of cooking. Turn off heat, add sesame oil, stir and remove to serving plate.
See our post on Homemade Wheat Gluten Mian Jin Kao Fu 自製麵筋!
More Vegelicious Dishes at The Hong Kong Cookery:
Buddha's Delight | Luohan Zhai 羅漢齋
Buddha's Delight | Luohan Zhai 羅漢齋