The Unique Taste of Burmese Tofu

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Burmese chickpea tofu
In Burma (Myanmar) tofu is made from chickpea.

Every morning, precisely at 11.00 O’ clock, our special man wearing Paso (Traditional Burmese skirt), a clean sleeveless vest and a shirt on top would go around the little hilly town pushing his four wheeled cart. The cart carried a square wooden container divided into two sections, neatly demarcated by another flat wooden piece. One section had a tray full of soft, wobbly jellylike but firm blocks of yellow stuff and the other had the same blocks finely cut into ribbons. Next, there were tall glass bottles (probably rum bottles) each filled with soy sauce, fish sauce, tamarind water, garlic water, and fried garlic oil. Apart from that the cart also carried metal bowls holding chopped coriander, chopped cabbages, sliced onions, fried garlic, fried onions, toasted chili flakes, toasted sesame seeds, crushed fried peanuts, toasted Besan powder, salt, lemon wedges, a little coal oven with a wok full of hot oil, a dozen or two of aluminum snack plates and spoons. A compact tiny portable kitchen on wheels.

Hto-Boo (Tofu) vendor in Myanmar.

Saturdays, Sundays and other holidays were the special days we impatiently waited for him as he called out “Wun tohoo”, in his unique sing-song style. Mom, aunts and cousins, visiting friends– everybody ran out helter skelter from all corners of the house, leaving behind everything unattended. Just one call! He stopped his cart in front of our house and got himself busy fixing our plates with this and that to make Tofu salad for us. Countless plates of tofu salad (to foo a thoke), blocks of tofu hollowed out to be filled with the spices, platefuls of double fried crispy tofu… on rainy days oh it’s Manna from heaven.

When I opened up my restaurant and chose to serve only Burmese cuisine, I came across two elderly ladies trying to explain something to my manager, he seemed quite perplexed and noticing that he was in a quandary I intervened. They were from Burma (now Myanmar).The ladies described what they wanted and I promptly asked them if they wanted Tofu salad; their eyes twinkled at the mention of the name and that delightful expression will remain with me as long as I live. I am happy to still have them as my loyal customers. It’s a Tofu bonding relationship. Many of us are not aware that there is a lot of difference between Chinese Tofu and Burmese Tofu. The pronunciation is more or less the same but the process of making them is totally different. The first point to remember is that Chinese Tofu in English parlance is actually ‘bean curd’, made from soya beans. The creator of tofu is said to be Liu An, who was a Han-dynasty prince of the Anhui province. He prepared soybeans similar to grains followed by drying, mashing and boiling with addition of sea salt. The salt acted as a seasoning as well as a solidifying agent to attain the curd form.

Hto-Boo (Tofu) Salad

It is said that soybeans originated from China almost 2000 years ago. It was used as a common commodity in Chinese cuisine. Tofu has very little flavor or smell of its own. Consequently, tofu can be used in both savory and sweet dishes, acting as a bland background for presenting the flavors of the other ingredients used. In order to flavor the tofu it is often marinated in soy sauce, chillies, sesame oil, etc. In East Asian cooking, tofu is prepared in many ways, including raw, stewed, and stir-fried. Tofu has very little flavor or smell of its own. Consequently, tofu can be used in both savory and sweet dishes, acting as a bland background for presenting the flavors of the other ingredients used.

Tofu was imported from dairying tribes or Buddhist monks from the Mongolian tribes living along the northern border of China. In India Paneer and tofu are both white blocks that have been pressed and curdled. However, paneer is a type of cheese from India, while tofu is soybean curd from China. On the other hand Burmese tofu is made from chickpea milk and has a fairly neutral flavor similar to regular tofu. It is more firm than traditional tofu and also mixed up with other dishes. Chickpea tofu is rich in protein, iron, calcium and other minerals. Burmese tofu (toh phoo) is made from “Chana dal” flour and the people from Shan States use yellow split pea flour instead. Both types are yellow in color. These tofus may be cut into rectangular or triangular shapes.

A variety called hsan to hpu or (hsan ta hpo in Shan regions) is made from rice flour (called hsan hmont or mont hmont) and is white in color with the same consistency as yellow Burmese tofu when set. It is eaten as a salad in the same manner as yellow tofu.

Hsan to-hpu or hsan ta-hpo.

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. In our country many regions have their versions of chickpea tofu preparations, Bengal has ‘Dhnoka’, and Gujarat has Dhokla, Gujarat and Maharashtra share Khandvi…very similar to Burmese or Shan Tofu. Greece has ‘Polenta’ too. Each country uses the same chickpea based items but our Burmese Tofu is really unique where taste is concerned. This is served as a vegetarian dish in Burma where the fish sauce is replaced with soy sauce. My restaurant offered Chickpea tofu curry with rice and my vegetarian customers left the restaurant happy and satiated.

If you search the internet you will come across many Burmese television channels showing how to make chickpea Tofu from scratch. Here I am sharing how I serve my Tofu salad. Cut the block of Tofu and make square slices, smear a teaspoon of chili garlic oil, sprinkle fried garlic, fried onion crispies, 2 pinches of toasted gram flour, a dash of lemon juice, chilli flakes, chopped cilantro, fish sauce or light soya sauce and serve. I also serve them after cutting them into thin flat ribbons and garnish with the same toppings as above but I add slices of double fried tofu fritters with this. Burmese Hto boo holds a very personal emotion which cannot be expressed in words, you must eat it to discover the unique taste.

Images courtesy: Chanda Dutt & Facebook.

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