This stew made with dried tau kee and shiitake mushrooms is meaty, aromatic and a great comfort dish.
After reading a column written by a colleague about her attempts to cull her possessions, I opened my store cupboard and bags of stuff promptly fell out.
Although I am good at editing my other belongings (Marie Kondo, I don’t care if it sparks joy. If it has to go, it has to go), the discipline and ruthlessness disappear when it comes to food.
How else to explain why I have so much salt I never have to buy the stuff for years? But I always buy more – tempted by grey salt from France, Himalayan pink salt, black salt from Hawaii and other shiny, salty crystals.
Condiments – don’t even get me started. I have all kinds of soya sauces, hot sauces (yes, a chilli coward like me has hot sauces) and dozens of things that caught my fancy but which I promptly forgot about once I bought them.
In a bid to tame the mess, I took a good, hard look at what I had and was delighted to find some dried ingredients that would make an effortless stew.
It helps that I am currently nuts about everything soy and have been craving tau kee.
My dish of braised beancurd stick and mushrooms is comfort food on a rainy day. It is good with rice or porridge and while it simmers on the stove, the kitchen smells wonderful and warm, with the scent of cinnamon, cloves and star anise in the air.
This is a vegetarian dish that has the satisfying bite of a meat dish. Yes, you can braise pork belly in the sauce but the meaty texture of the mushrooms makes me forget that there is no meat.
The dish takes a long time to be ready but aside from letting the dried ingredients rehydrate and stirring the pot now and then, most of that time can be spent sitting on a couch and reading.
If you have a large enough slow cooker, dump the ingredients in after stir-frying and just let them cook on low for eight hours or so.
This is the sort of slow food I like.
The time you lavish on it means the tau kee or beancurd stick becomes soft and silky.
Those mushrooms soak up the aromatic braising sauce and become juicy and luscious.
You can, if you want to, slice any leftover mushrooms and toss them with instant noodles together with some of the braising sauce and the hot sauces crammed in your store cupboard.
I made a version with tau kwa or firm beancurd but asked myself if I would rather have that or more tau kee. More tau kee was the answer.
If you prefer tau kwa, use 200g of tau kee instead and in the last 15 minutes of cooking time, add two pieces of tau kwa, cut up, to the stew.
Other add-ons include sliced tau pok and hard-boiled eggs, which can go in during the last 15 minutes too.
While I used to soak dried shiitake in the refrigerator, I now do it overnight in room temperature. I find they end up softer and more tender.
Good tau kee is essential for the dish because it has to hold up during the long cooking time. I have had good results with the Sun Kee and Max’s brands.
Many recipes call for a 20-minute soaking time but 45 minutes to an hour works better for me.
The stew is great the day it is made, especially with some of my mother’s tangy chilli and lime dip. However, the leftovers mellow out overnight and the dish has greater depth of flavour. Nevertheless, try and finish it within two days.
Then root around the store cupboard for more ingredients to use up.
BRAISED TAU KEE AND MUSHROOMS
- 12 large dried shiitake mushrooms, 130g to 150g
- 1.5 litres tap water
- 300g tau kee (dried beancurd stick)
- 25g black wood ear fungus
- 3 to 4 cloves garlic
- 2 Tbs cooking oil
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 star anise
- 4 cloves
- 2 Tbs light soya sauce
- 3 Tbs dark soya sauce
- 2 Tbs Shaoxing wine (optional)
- 2 tsp sugar
- Salt to taste
- Chopped scallions or coriander leaves (optional)
1. The night before cooking, rinse the dried mushrooms under running water and place in a large bowl. Pour tap water over them and place a plate over the mushrooms to keep them submerged. Let soak eight to 10 hours at room temperature.
2. About an hour before cooking, soak the tau kee in warm water for about 45 minutes. Rinse the fungus well and soak for about 45 minutes in tap water, changing the water twice to get rid of the grit. This is a lot easier if the fungus is in a colander set in a bowl.
3. Drain the tau kee and gently squeeze the strips to get rid of some of the water. Cut lengthwise into 8 to 10cm pieces. Drain the fungus and using a sharp pair of kitchen shears, cut into bite-sized pieces, discarding any hard, woody parts.
4. Gently squeeze the liquid out of the mushrooms back into the bowl. Slice off the stems and discard. Reserve 1 litre of the mushroom soaking liquid, making sure you leave the grit behind.
5. Finely chop the garlic.
6. Heat the oil over medium high heat in a large and deep pot. Add the mushrooms and stirfry 30 seconds. Add the cinnamon stick, cloves and star anise and stir-fry another 30 seconds. Add the chopped garlic and stirfry 30 seconds. Add the fungus and stirfry 30 seconds. Do the same with the tau kee.
7. Pour in the mushroom-soaking liquid. Add the light and dark soya sauces, the wine (if using) and the sugar. Bring the pot to a boil and turn the heat down to medium low. Let it simmer for 90 minutes partially covered, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes.
8. When the cooking time is up, have a taste and add salt if needed. Spoon into a serving bowl and top with the scallions or coriander if using.
Serves six to eight as part of a meal with rice and other dishes.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 12, 2017, with the headline ‘Getting into a stew’.