Yesterday I had an exciting new food experience with a starch jelly common in Myanmar. There it is commonly referred to as “tofu” တိုဖူး, though it isn’t made from soy or processed in the ways in which beans are fermented into blocks in other parts of East and Southeast Asia. In this case, a bean jelly is made by combining chickpea flour in water and simmering the mixture for a few minutes before pouring it into a vessel to set.
The result is a consistency similar to silken tofu, but with a slightly nuttier flavor, reminiscent of hummus. The finished jelly can be used in a variety of ways. It can be added to savory soups, it can be mixed with aromatics and sauces to make for a refreshing cold salad, and it can even be deep fried like Chinese tofu.
Chickpea tofu is a fascinating example of the cultural mixing that happens in Myanmar. A name and notion from a well-known food preparation in China is adapted and applied to a staple of chickpea flour common in India.
The context of my food experience was a food outreach event yesterday with a student action group called the REFresh Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. The event called attention to foodways of Philadelphia refugees from Myanmar. There were some moving stories told as we shared cooking duties to make several dishes together. Many of the flavors we explored were very similar to those of Northern Thailand, but one item in particular was a new to me among these otherwise Southeast Asian flavors: toasted chickpea flour. This powder was mixed into all of the different salads served. I was intrigued.
I later learned that there are different varieties of chickpea flour to use for different purposes. The powder we used for salad was different than the untoasted kind used for making chickpea tofu.
Chickpea flours are relatively easy to obtain in Philadelphia as many cultures share the chickpea (or garbanzo bean) food staple. I traveled down to South Philly’s 7th Street Burmese markets to talk with shopkeepers and get some suggestions on best varieties of chickpea flour to use for chickpea tofu. As you can see in the image below, I was directed to an Indian brand of chickpea flour. Keep that in mind as Philly’s South Asian markets are more plentiful than Philly’s Burmese markets (which are concentrated on South Philly’s 7th Street).
There is a great video on Youtube that shows large scale “yellow tofu” processing in the Shan State in Myanmar. It is worth a viewing.
I also found that I had a good deal of information on chickpea tofu already on my bookshelf in Naomi Duguid’s 2012 cookbook Burma: Rivers of Flavor. She has recipes for making the tofu (which she calls “Shan” tofu), as well as soup, salad, and deep fry recipes for using the finished tofu. I used her recipe for making the tofu, one cup of chickpea flour to 3 cups of water.
I prepared two batches of tofu, one that was just besan, salt, and water, and one that included a pinch of turmeric for coloring. The basic idea is the same as making a Chinese jelly noodle: 1. Premix the starch (or in this case bean flour) with part of the water until it is smooth and press through a sieve to ensure there are no lumps, 2. dump that mixture into a pot of boiling (remaining) water, 3. Stir on medium heat to heat through the mixture and make a velvety texture, and 4. dump into an oiled vessel that can be put into the refrigerator for several hours.
After several hours in the refrigerator, the tofu is stiff enough to be used in salad and deep fry preparations.
Above are my two batches. The one on the left was quite fragile and watery. That might be because I covered it while it was still warm and let it set in a very wide bowl. The second one (with yellow turmeric) was set in a smaller bowl, and I left it uncovered–that one had a tighter texture.
Burmese Tofu Salad
Chickpea tofu is commonly used in Myanmar to make salads. Seasonings and sauces can vary based on region. Here is a nice image example from MyFoodMyanmar.com that uses shrimp powder, fish sauce, and cilantro as key seasonings. Mark Viens also has a nice video eating this salad this as street food in Yangon. In the end, I based my try on Naomi Duguid’s recipe, as it combined yesterday’s food memory with what seemed like the standard key ingredients (primarily shallot oil, sourness, and herbal aromatics).
Chickpea tofu fritters
Chickpea tofu can also be deep fried in crunchy thin slices or blocks that are crunchy on the outside and velvety on the inside. Below are some images of how those turned out. The flavors were nutty and sweet. The really small crunchy bits were so sweet they almost tasted like GrapeNuts (for me this is not a negative flavor association).