Versatile Shan tofu in two forms: in the back, Pale Yellow Shan Tofu; and in front, Deep-Fried Shan Tofu.

The smooth, pale yellow “tofu” that the Shan make is one of the great unsung treasures of Southeast Asia, beautiful to look at and a pleasure to eat in many forms. It’s also another reminder of how much of the Shan repertoire is ideal for vegetarians.

Unlike “regular” (soybean) tofu, Shan tofu is easy to make at home, and it has a much better flavor. I call for chickpea flour because it's widely available in health food stores and in Ethiopian and South Asian groceries (it’s sometimes labeled “besan,” its Hindi name). The flour is stirred into water and cooked gently, then the mixture is set aside to firm up for a few hours and, voilà, it’s done!

Shan tofu can be made of other legumes. Chickpea flour is the easiest option for those with access to it, but in villages in Shan State other legumes are used: mung beans (which yield a very attractive pale green tofu) or yellow beans like pigeon peas (split peas) seem the most common. Cooks start by cooking the beans. Then they grind or pulverize them to a smooth thick soup texture that will set into “tofu.”

Apart from the ease of making it, Shan tofu is a cook’s friend because of its versatility. You can chop it up and serve it in a salad; slice it into long strands and use it as a noodle base for a soup or sauce of any kind; cut it into thin pieces and deep-fry it for a delicious snack (see Deep-Fried Shan Tofu); or serve it as a satisfying soup (see Silky Shan Soup) before it cools and firms.

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Ingredients

  • 2 cups chickpea flour
  • teaspoons salt
  • 6 cups water
  • Peanut oil or vegetable oil

Method

Place the chickpea flour and salt in a medium bowl and add 2 cups of the water. Whisk to blend well; you want to get rid of all lumps. (If you are having difficulty getting it perfectly smooth, press it through a sieve into another bowl.) Set aside for a moment.

Lightly oil two 8-inch ceramic or glass pie plates or shallow bowls at least 1½ inches deep (or pans of similar volumes—7- or 8-inch square cake pans, for example).

Bring the remaining 4 cups water to a boil in a wide, shallow, heavy pot, then lower the heat to medium-high. Whisk the chickpea mixture one more time, then use a wooden spoon to stir continuously as you slowly add it to the boiling water. The liquid will foam a little at first. Lower the heat to medium and continue stirring to ensure that the mixture does not stick to the bottom of the pot. After about 5 minutes, the mixture will be smooth, with a silky sheen to it, and will have thickened. Immediately pour it into the prepared plates or pans.

Let stand for a few minutes to cool slightly, then place in the refrigerator to firm up and set. After 1 hour, it will be firm enough to serve as tofu, but if you are planning to slice it for deep-frying, or to make a salad, it’s better to let it chill for at least 4 hours, or even as long as overnight if you wish.

When ready to proceed, turn the tofu out onto a board. It should be smooth, dense, and firm, not sticky, so that it can be thinly sliced without breaking; if it is still soft, place it back in the refrigerator to firm up. Use a sharp chef’s knife to slice it.

Tofu Strips: Some Shan cooks use a kind of cheese slicer to make long shavings of the tofu, rather like noodles. If your tofu is very firm, use a sharp cheese slicer to make thin strips for tofu salad or for “noodles” to go under soup or in sauces.

Turmeric-Yellow Shan Tofu

In central Burma, Bamar cooks tend to add turmeric, which makes for a more yellow tofu (they do the same with Silky Shan Soup). Just add ¼ teaspoon turmeric to the chickpea flour and salt.

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