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Memories of Childhood Chinese Chicken

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.

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