What To Know About Hairy Tofu, An Eastern Chinese Delicacy

From its origins in China roughly 2,000 years ago, tofu has evolved into a wide diversity of regional styles and preparations. There are thin and chewy tofu skins, and soft silken tofu, as well as extra-firm tofu poised for crispy, fried preparations. While most of these styles have started to appear in stores and restaurants abroad, there are still many more distinct styles mostly limited to China.

One such example is hairy tofu, also called mao doufu. Hailing from the Anhui province in eastern China, the food is a local fermented delicacy. Prepared by generational makers, it starts with firm tofu, which is then stored in wooden boxes at a designated temperature and environment. Aged for up to six days, the tofu develops a blue-cheese-like quality but with sprouting hairs jutting out from the soy block. It's then cooked into varying dishes, typically involving frying. And despite its impressionable appearance, hairy tofu has a mildly tangy flavor, backed by a tender, moist interior. It's a fermented product that's both a fascinating culinary practice and a treat to enjoy.

Hairy tofu ferments in moist conditions for several days

Hairy tofu's production process starts with the creation of the coagulated soybean product. Certain manufacturers still use centuries-old manufacturing methods. However, some hairy tofu is now created in industrial settings. The soybean curds are separated from the milk using a heated wok and then condensed in a multi-step process similar to how cheese is made.

Once dense, the tofu cubes are deposited in specialized wooden boxes, sometimes lined with straw. The containers are stacked, with cloth or plastic separating each layer. They're left to ferment, creating hairy growths in a temperature-controlled environment of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. It takes around six days for the product to reach completion.

To preserve the product and halt fermentation, the hairy tofu often gets jarred alongside aromatics, chiles, and oil. Alternatively, it can also be prepared immediately with a hot, deep fry and a dusting of pepper powder. Others coat the product in eggs and pan-fry or stir-fry the tofu into a scramble. Regardless of the preparation method, the resultant flavor is earthy, soft, and delicious, showcasing why the product is worth the effort.