Memories of Childhood Chinese Chicken

There's tofu in this. Can you believe it?

I remember the times of peeking into the refrigerator at home to find a big jellyroll pan laid out from one end to the other with marinating chicken.

And feeling the excitement of the dinner to come that night.

I remember how those plump drumsticks were arranged in two neat rows down the length of the pan.

I remember their terracotta color.

And the aroma of savoriness and something a little mysterious in the mix.

I remember waiting for my Mom to roast them in a hot oven until their color deepened and their skin crisped.

I’d pick up a drumstick with my fingers, the reddish sauce staining them deliciously as I took a big bite of joy.

As a kid, I never really knew what made this chicken so distinctive. All I knew was that it was something that came from a screw-top jar from Chinatown. And that my Mom referred to this dish as “fu-yee chicken.”

Thanks to my friend and most talented cookbook writer, Andrea Nguyen, I now know exactly what goes into the marinade that gives it such color and taste.

It’s tofu. Yes, cubes of soybean curd, but ones that have been allowed to age and ferment in a brine of red yeast rice or red wine, rice wine and water. It turns the tofu red and creamy with a flavor that’s salty, a little sweet, really savory, sort of musky and a tad funky.

Not that funky is a bad thing. After all, it’s what makes anchovies and runny cheeses so wonderful.

Like them, red fermented tofu may be a taste sensation that has to grow on you. It might seem strong and strange the first time, but the more you eat of it, the more you want.

Find out all about red fermented tofu (also called hong fu ru or nan ru in Mandarin or fu yu in Cantonese; and chao do in Vietnamese) in Nguyen’s newest cookbook, “Asian Tofu” (Ten Speed Press), of which I received a review copy.

It’s an extensive look at all things tofu. Learn how to make your own tofu from scratch, the amazing varieties of tofu products on the market, and how to utilize them in dishes such as “Tofu French Fries,” “Tea-Smoked Tofu with Pepper and Pork” and “Okara Doughnuts.”

Of course, it was the “Roast Chicken with Red Fermented Tofu” that I wanted to try first.

Find it on the shelves at Chinese markets.

Deep red in color, and creamy soft in texture.

The cubes of red fermented tofu get mashed up with a fork, along with honey, five-spice powder and canola oil. It’s smeared all over the chicken pieces, then allowed to do its magic marinating powers for at least two hours or up to 24 hours in the fridge.

Roast them in the oven for about 40 minutes, flipping the pieces halfway through.

I don’t know if my late-Mom added five-spice or honey to her mixture. But after one bite, I knew this was darn close to what I relished eating as a child.

So, thank you, my dear Andrea, for gifting me a taste of the past that I adored then, and still do now.

Roast Chicken with Red Fermented Tofu (Ga Nuong Chao)

(Serves 4)

3 1/2 pounds chicken legs and/or thighs

1/4 cup mashed red fermented tofu (see Note)

1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons canola oil

Salt as needed

Trim chicken pieces of excess fat or skin. Pat dry and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the fermented tofu, five-spice powder, honey and oil, mixing well with a fork. The marinade will resemble a thick livery mixture, but taste it. It will be pleasant, I assure you. If needed, add salt by the 1/4 teaspoon to arrive at a deep, savory flavor.

Add chicken pieces and use your fingers to massage the marinade into the flesh, distributing the seasonings as evenly as possible. When possible, peel back the skin to get some marinade between the flesh and skin. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours for the best flavor.

About 30 to 45 minutes before roasting, remove the chicken from the refrigerator. To promote heat circulation and prevent sticking, place a flat roasting or cooling rack on an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet. Put chicken pieces, skin side down, on the rack. (If you don’t have a rack big enough, the chicken can roast on the foil, but it may stick.) Let the chicken sit uncovered, at room temperature to remove some of the chill.

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees. Slide the chicken in the oven. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes, flipping the chicken midway, until nicely browned and cooked through; the juices should run clear when a piece is poked in the meatiest part with a toothpick, bamboo skewer, or knife tip.

During the last 10 minutes of roasting, the skin will color rather quickly to a reddish-brown mahogany. If you want to crisp the skin, switch to broiler heat for the final 3 minutes or so; leave the chicken in the middle of the oven. Monitor the chicken to prevent burning; turn it, as needed. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

Note: Red fermented tofu can be found on the shelf in glass jars or ceramic containers at Chinese markets. Andrea Nguyen particularly likes the Treasure and Red Diamond brands from China. Be sure to choose jars that have tight seals. Refrigerate after opening.

From “Asian Tofu” by Andrea Nguyen

More Andrea Nguyen Recipes to Love: Steamed Buns Made From Pillsbury Biscuit Dough

And: Baked Char Siu Pork Buns

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  • Lovely memeories and ground sounding book! That recipe is mouthwatering. I totally understand your anticipation when finding that jellyroll pan in the fridge…



  • This post is making me remember my childhood too…mum used to make the best drumsticks and I had it nearly everyday…yours looks so delicious!

  • Such mouthwatering memories!

  • My Mom used to love eating this stinky tofu from a jar just plain on rice, and us kids would all think she was out of her mind. We never touched the stuff. If she made it into chicken, maybe we would have. Now I use this mostly when I make my new year’s jai, but now I’m going to try it as a chicken marinade too!

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  • Carolyn, it tickles me to know that this recipe touches your life so deeply. It’s easy and delicious, uses one of the most fascinating types of tofu.

    Thanks for sharing your personal story and my recipe. It’s like we had a tofu brain mind meld. In fact, I was thinking making it for a potluck this weekend. Yeah, I cook from my own recipes! =}

  • Andrea: Thank YOU! Would you believe I hadn’t had this chicken dish for decades? I never made it myself until now, not knowing exactly what my Mom used to make it. I’m glad I can finally make it now — and enjoy a taste of home. 😉

  • I love that you and Andrea are friends as well as members of the food-and-wine industry–one who explains how to cook and one who reports what’s eaten–both satisfying information appetites at the need-to-know confluence with want-to-know desires.
    Thanks to both of you for this post regarding the unique flavor that fu-yu brings to tofu, chicken and countless other dishes. Well done!

  • We never had this as my grandmother did mostly Northern Chinese dishes. We did use this fermented tofu on ong choy though.

  • Hum…not sure how my hubby will feel about fermented tofu but I love it!

  • I’ve been eyeing that Asian Tofu book for a while now and I had no idea it had such interesting recipes! Not only does that chicken look tasty, but with how much I love tofu, I’m sure it would be worth the book purchase!

  • Carolyn, the first time I used this fermented bean curd, I really had my doubts but it’s not at all funky. When mushed and used as a marinade or sauce, it gives such a wonderful, smooth, peanutty flavor to the dish (we used it to braise with pork riblets). I’m going to have to try this recipe and find a way to get my hands on Andrea’s new book! Here’s the link to my first time experience using this bean curd:

  • I’ve had five-spice roasted chicken before…but tofu marinated?! That sounds great! I’m wondering though, how strong is the taste of fermented tofu in the final dish…and does it also act towards tenderizing the chicken?

  • I really want to try making tofu from scratch! My dad used to make soy bean milk from scratch and for ages he couldn’t find tofu (when we were young)!

  • Amrita: The flavor of the fermented tofu is not overpowering in the finished dish. You definitely get the earthy-anise notes of the five-spice and the subtle sweetness of honey. Then there is a savory, slightly musky flavor that you can’t quite put your finger on. That’s the fermented tofu. But all in all, the flavor of the chicken is quite balanced. And yes, I’m guessing that the enzymes in the fermented tofu do help tenderize the chicken. I marinated mine overnight, and I definitely recommend that if you have the time.

  • ‘fermented beancurd’ just fails to sound appetizing, but what you’ve described and depicted is amazing!

  • Wow, I am going to make this dish just based on this story. It sounds amazing and I want to peak in to my fridge and find it for myself.

    How cool that Andrea has another cookbook out, I am going to jump on Amazon as soon as I finish here and get my copy!

  • Childhood memories are the best aren’t they? And when it is something related to food, nothing like it 🙂

  • This book sounds interesting and I need to check it out. I would love this red fermented tofu!

  • I never grew up with this chicken – instead, it was usually marinated chicken that was deep fried. I like that your recipe is roasted!

  • I haven’t had red fermented tofu, only white fermented tofu (also called “chao” in Vietnamese, and also made of tofu with rice wine). Do you find it tasting kinda similar to the tofu misozuke? Does red mean chili pepper/spicy?

  • Mai: The red fermented tofu is not spicy at all. The red coloring is from the wine used in the brine. And the taste is quite different from misozuke, the miso-cured tofu. The misozuke has a definite intense, salty miso flavor, while the red fermented tofu has a rather musky, funky note to it. They’re both quite unique in their own way.

  • I think I’ll have to make a trip to the Asian grocer tomorrow…

  • waw, seems to be very tasty from tofu. a special recipe. I will try to do a variation with certain materials from tofu or tempeh. thanks =)

  • Could not have picked a better way to introduce my family to fermented tofu. The depth of flavor and visual appeal, WOW!!!! My next venture is pork belly and taro, braised with fermented red tofu.

  • Blaine: So happy to hear that your family is a new fan of fermented tofu. Your pork belly dish sounds fantastic, too. Happy cooking!

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