May 20th, 2016
The invitation came as a wonderful surprise. Would my friend Lea and I like to go to a local’s home and see how Lijiang’s famous lentil tofu (鸡豆凉粉, jīdòu liángfěn) is made? Liu Kang, the driver who worked for our hotel had family who ran a tiny jidou liangfen business. He was happy to arrange for us to visit them.
Liangfen (or “cold powder”) is a popular food across Yunnan, other parts of western China (like Sichuan), and northern China (especially Beijing, Gansu, and Shaanxi). It is also eaten in Burma (and is therefore known in the US as “Burmese tofu” or “Shan tofu”) and in Korea, where it is called muk. As the name suggests, it’s often made from a powdery starch like pea starch, potato starch, or mung bean starch. This is cooked with water and sets into a cold, slick jello-like food that can be sliced into cubes or shaved into noodles. In Yunnan it is usually dressed with a combination of vinegar, chile oil, peanuts, and fresh herbs and eaten as a snack. (You can almost always find it at stalls outside food markets.)
Jidou liangfen is a specific twist on this dish that is only served in Naxi areas around Lijiang. Though jidou is usually translated at “chickpea,” this dish is actually made with a mix of chickpeas and lentils, which gives the finished dish a grey color (as opposed to the bright gold color that you see with the Dali version, which is made from mung beans). You can find it in old town, sliced into long noodles and topped with ingredients like dried ground chiles, cilantro, bean sprouts, peanuts, and garlic.
The evening of our appointment, Lea and I hopped into a van and headed out into the countryside, away from the touristy chaos of Old Town Lijiang. Liu Kang and his family lived about 30 minutes away, in Tai Ping Cun, a little cluster of houses in the middle of farmland near the airport. When we arrived, I was struck by how much construction was going on in the town. Every family seemed to be renovating their house: tearing down an old wood-and-brick structure and building a new concrete one. Our hosts, in fact, were in the middle of building a new home, and the entire place was a construction site.
We made our way across a series of wooden boards that served as walkways over wet cement and ended up in an interior courtyard, where the family had set up a makeshift kitchen in a three-walled room. There was an industrial-size grinder, a couple of huge woks built into a wood-fired stove, and a cloth sling hanging from the ceiling.
Liu Kang’s wife, Zhao Guimei, offered us a seat on a low wooden bench and handed us paper cups full of warm, freshly-made tofu to snack on, and soon we were joined by other family members—aunts, uncles, and grandparents—who all came down to the small bare room when they arrived home from work. We did our best to introduce ourselves, but most of the family, especially the older generation, spoke a local Bai dialect, and eventually we all simply sat in companionable silence as everyone took turns helping make the jidou liangfen.
First our hosts ground a combination of pre-soaked lentils and soybeans with lots of water, then re-ground the mixture to make a thick slurry that they strained through a tightly-woven cloth that had been turned into a kind of hammock tied to wooden poles and hung from the ceiling (see photo, above). People took turns rocking the cloth so that all of the liquid from the mixture slowly dripped into a bucket, bringing starch from the lentils with it. When the mixture was thoroughly strained, the cloth was folded up around the remaining solids and the bundle was pressed under a heavy weight to extract any remaining liquid. The liquid was then left to settle for almost an hour while the starch sank to the bottom of the bucket.
While we waited for the liquid to settle, the younger members of the family gathered around a portable wok stove set up in the corner of the room and made a quick dinner. More of the fresh tofu was set out, along with deep-fried pork and stir-fried greens. But the real treat was a dish made from the previous day’s jidou liangfen, which had been cut with a grooved carrot peeler and dried outside in the sun. The result was toothsome, noodle-like strips that had a rich flavor reminiscent of buckwheat noodles. Stir-fried with scallions, chiles, slivers of pork belly, and a few sauces, it was one of the most surprising and delicious dishes I’ve had in Yunnan.
When dinner was done, Liu Kang and Zhao Guimei began cooking the jidou liangfen: First, they ladled the liquid from the top of the bucket into two large woks that were heated from below by strong wood fires and cooked it, stirring occasionally, until it was steaming. Then they scraped the solids up from the bottom of the bucket and added them into the hot mixture in a thin stream, stirring constantly. As the solids were added, the mixture began to darken from a light yellow color to a deep grey. They continued to cook the mixture until it had thickened so much that it slid off the spoon in thick sheets. Lastly, they tamped down the fires in the stove, covered the woks with conical lids made of woven rattan, and let it continue to cook slowly for about 15 minutes. When the mixture was done, family members gathered around to help pour the hot base into large bowls where it was left to cool; Zhao Guimei told me that it would solidify in about four hours and would be ready to slice by morning.
When we left that night, Liu Kang packed up a small bowl of the mixture for us to take back to the hotel, and in the morning, the owner of the inn sliced it up and pan-fried it with hot sauce for breakfast. The dish was smooth and earthy and almost a tiny bit chewy, and somehow it was the perfect breakfast food.
Photos: Georgia Freedman, Josh Wand, Georgia Freedman (4)