One day, whilst shooting the breeze with me somewhere, an ang moh acquaintance said he had a tattoo. Without any encouragement on my part, he rolled up his sleeve to show me the Chinese word on his arm. He seemed quite proud of it, and I was all prepared to 'Oooh!' appropriately (whilst running my fingers gently over his bulging biceps *wink wink*). Instead, when I saw the word he had chosen, the beer I was drinking took a detour into my lungs and up my nose. My face turned red; I thumped my chest; he thumped my back; it was a while before I could stop coughing. By then, Acquaintance probably suspected there was something wrong with his tattoo 'cause I was laughing and gesturing at it even as I choked on my drink. Indeed, there was, for the word on his arm was "腐".
"腐", for those who don't know, means decay, rot, spoil, or corrupt. Why the hell did he tattoo himself with such a word? Ah . . . . Because Acquaintance had been told the word meant eagle. Or rather, the catalogue that he'd picked the word from said so. But 'eagle' is "鹰", not "腐"! They may look similar, but the two words are worlds apart in meaning. Unfortunately, nobody at the tattoo parlour in London understood Chinese.
Grinning from ear to ear despite my watering eyes, I said, 'You know tofu? This word is the 'fu' part of "tofu".'
'I've got "tofu" tattooed on my arm?!'
'Er, no, it's just "fu", not "tofu".'
'What does "fu" mean?' It was cruel but I had to tell him. 'It doesn't make sense if "fu" means rot, because there's nothing rotten about tofu,' he said.
He had a point. Why is tofu called tofu when the 'to' (beans) aren't "fu" (rotten)?
The question bothered me for years but not anymore. I've just googled and found a plausible explanation, which is this: A long, long time ago, the Chinese called Mongolian cheese furu (腐乳), which meant spoiled milk. And then they started making curd, which resembled cheese, with soya bean milk. Hence, the curd was called tofu (豆腐), meaning spoiled beans. And then they started fermenting tofu, which turned creamy/milky as mould grew on it. So they called the fermented tofu furu, the same name which had been given to Mongolian cheese. This time, the preserved tofu did full justice to the word "腐".
Were Mongolians really making cheese even before Chinese started making beancurd, which was an awfully long time ago in 200-something BC (Han dynasty)? I don't know, but at least I have an answer next time someone asks me to explain the 'fu' part of "tofu".
I never found out whether Mr "腐" removed his tattoo, but I would if I were him. Or maybe put "豆" on the other arm, and tell everyone he loves tofu. If I see him again, I'll invite him to my place and make him some nice tofu dishes, like Spicy Diced Chicken with Fermented Tofu. I'm sure he'd love that. *wink wink*
|DICED CHICKEN IN SPICY FERMENTED TOFU SAUCE (香辣腐乳鸡丁)|
(Recipe for 4 persons)
400 g boneless chicken leg, wash and dice 2 cm
1½ tbsp white fermented beancurd's pickling liquid
⅓ tsp salt
½ tbsp sugar
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
1½ tbsp water
1 tbsp white sesame oil
1 piece ginger, half thumb size, peel, wash and slice thinly
3 cloves garlic, peel, wash and slice thinly
3 bird's eye chillies, or adjust to taste, wash, trim and slice diagonally 3 mm thick
½ tbsp spring onions (white part) cut 1 cm long
30 g white fermented beancurd, mash
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
2 tbsp spring onions (green part) cut 1 cm long
¼ tsp white sesame oil
Mix chicken with marinade ingredients till all liquid is absorbed. Marinate for 15 minutes or longer.
In a just smoking wok, heat 1 tbsp white sesame oil till very hot. Add ginger and stir-fry over high heat till lightly golden. Add garlic, chillies and spring onions (white part). Stir-fry till garlic is also lightly golden. Add fermented beancurd and stir-fry till fragrant. Add chicken and stir-fry till wok is very hot. Drizzle with wine and stir through. Drizzle with 1 tbsp water and stir through again. Add 2 tbsp water and continue stirring – a few minutes would do – till chicken is just cooked (totally opaque and firm), and sauce is reduced and slightly thickened. Or leave sauce a bit watery if not eating within 10 minutes, because it thickens as it sits.
Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Turn off heat. Sprinkle with spring onions (green part). Stir through. Sprinkle with ¼ tsp sesame oil. Plate and serve immediately.