This tofu thread fin soup is my take on shark fin soup, considered a Chinese delicacy that is served during festive banquets and Chinese New Year. For the uninitiated, shark fin consists mainly of soft collagen and has a chewy, gelatinous texture without much discernible taste of its own. The soup’s flavour comes from the stock and seasonings like vinegar. I wanted to develop a vegan shark fin soup with shark fin melon, but there was a drought of such melons in all markets. Serendipitously, I stumbled across an intriguing recipe called “Monk Wensi’s Tofu Thread Soup” in the cookbook Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China (2016) by Fuchsia Dunlop. It involves cutting silken tofu into 1 mm filaments and swirling them in starch-thickened broth, along with lily flower, wood ear fungus and spring onions. The historical origins of this soup traces back to 18th century Yangzhou, China, where a Buddhist monk called Wensi served this dish in the Manchu Han Imperial Feast laid for the Qianlong emperor. Modern versions of Wensi tofu can be found in some upscale Chinese restaurants, and even more elaborate cuts to create tofu flowers have create a storm in the culinary world.
In my version, I used kombu shiitake stock as the base and kudzu starch to thicken. Kudzu is less processed than corn starch that is usually used to thicken Chinese soups. You can read more of the properties and benefits of kudzu in this post. Instead of wood ear fungus, I decided to repurpose the rehydrated kombu along with the shiitake mushroom by creating a ceviche – cutting them finely and marinating them in tamari, toasted sesame oil and brown rice vinegar and use them as a garnish with a salty-sour punch. Moreover, the kombu provides enough mineral salts so that added salt is not needed. If you like, season with tamari for more “salty” flavour. When properly prepared, this soup nourishes you with sustained energy, leaving one calm yet alert.
The video below shows the method of cutting the silken tofu into threads. It’s definitely harder than it looks! When I first attempted it slowly, the tofu kept sticking to the sides of the cleaver and broke when I tried to slide it off. As I practiced, I realised the trick is to just keep going with the motion and everything will fall into place. Always have your fingers in the claw grip position for safety reasons! Do not be disappointed if your tofu threads fail to match up to Yangzhou standards; the soup will be a pleasure to eat anyway and half the fun of making this dish is the cutting of the tofu.
If you are up for a challenge, you can even cut the tofu into a flower, like in the video below. The tofu hydrangea was made famous by a restaurant called Chili Party in Fountain Valley, CA. Apparently the chef makes 60 cuts horizontally and vertically on the block of tofu, turning it into a flower with 3,600 filaments.
- 16-20 square inches kombu
- 1 dried shiitake mushroom
- 1 L filtered water
- 1 rehydrated shiitake, reserved from dashi preparation, finely sliced
- 1 rehydrated kombu, reserved from dashi preparation, finely sliced
- 1 tsp tamari
- 1 tsp brown rice or Chinkiang vinegar
- 1/8 tsp toasted sesame oil
- 1 L kombu shiitake dashi (recipe above)
- 80 g (1 small) carrot, finely sliced
- 300 g (1 block) silken tofu, finely sliced
- 40 g (4 tbsp) kudzu starch mixed with 120 g (1/2 cup) filtered water
- White pepper and tamari, to taste
- 1 tbsp gochugaru or Korean chili flakes
- 2 tsp ground tangerine peel
- 2 tsp white sesame seeds, lightly toasted
- 2 tsp black sesame seeds, lightly toasted
- 1 tsp hemp seeds
- 1 tsp whole Sichuan peppercorns, freshly ground
- 1 tsp aonori or flaked nori
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- Place the kombu and mushroom in a pot with the water. Soak for at least 2 hours, or refrigerate for up to 1 day, to allow the flavour-enhancing glutamates in the kombu and mushroom to infuse the stock gradually with their essence. Bring almost to a boil, and then just as bubbles appear, remove and reserve the kombu. Simmer with mushrooms inside for 5 minutes. Strain and reserve the mushroom.
- Combine the tamari, brown rice vinegar and sesame oil in a small bowl and whisk together to create a dressing. Add in the finely sliced shiitake and kombu and gently fold together to coat the mushrooms with the dressing. Cover and chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours.
- Finely julienne the carrot and set aside.
- Turn the tofu out onto a chopping board. Hold a Chinese cleaver or broad cutting knife perpendicular to the board and trim off and discard the sloping end of the block, so you have a clean perpendicular edge. Working slowly and steadily with an up-and-down chopping motion, cut the tofu into the thinnest slices you can - ideally about 1 mm thick. When you have sliced about a third of the block, nudge the slices so they fall on their sides in overlapping layers. Cut them into the thinnest possible strips. Use the side of your cleaver to gently scoop up the tofu silvers and place them into a bowl of cold water. Repeat with the rest of the block.
- Bring the dashi to boil in a seasoned wok or large saucepan. Once boiling, add in the julienned carrots and reduce the heat to simmer for 3 minutes until the carrots are tender. Drain the tofu in a sieve and gently transfer them to the stock. Stir gently and taste and adjust the seasoning with white pepper and tamari as necessary.
- Give the kudzu starch slurry a good stir and slowly pour into the soup, stirring gently as the liquid thickens: it's best to do this by nudging the soup with the back of a ladle so you don't break up the tofu. When the liquid has a heavy, lazy consistency that holds the tofu threads easily, transfer to serving bowls. Garnish with the shiitake and kombu ceviche and sprinkle shichimi togarashi. Serve with brown rice or Chinkiang vinegar on the side.
- For a fuss-free or safe option, you can use tofu shirataki noodles or rehydrated yuba.
- For a challenge, you can cut the tofu as a hydrangea. This is popularised by restaurant Chili Party in Fountain Valley, CA. See link for video.
- For soy-free alternatives, substitute the tofu with mung bean noodles, sweet potato noodles, shredded sharkfin melon, shredded mountain yam, finely sliced konnyaku (Japanese yam cake) and/or bamboo shoots.
- The kombu provides enough mineral salts so that added salt is not needed. Season with tamari for more "salty" flavour. This when properly prepared, can have an extraordinary effect on one's energy, leaving one calm yet alert.