For special show-off dinners, the elderly but always playful head of our Chinese household, Po-fu, would make this soup. It was the traditional ploy of the Chinese gourmet, starring something thoroughly unpretentious and inexpensive as a contrast to an otherwise lavish meal. Other cooks might have bought shark’s fins or busied themselves carving a winter melon. Po-fu cooked tofu.
Put the tofu in a heavy saucepan. Add cold water to cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to maintain a lively simmer, cover the pot, and simmer the tofu for 10 minutes. While it is simmering, bring the chicken stock to a lively simmer in a heavy, non-aluminum saucepan or stockpot that will permit the tofu to tumble freely about.
After 10 minutes, remove the tofu carefully with a Chinese mesh spoon or a large metal sieve to cradle it gently without breaking it. Rinse briefly with cool water to remove any scum, then transfer it to the simmering stock. Cover and simmer for 1 hour, checking periodically to insure a lively simmer and to turn the tofu over gently.
Hold the tofu above the stock to drain, and spread the cakes on a large plate. Let cool for several minutes, then neatly cut off the outer skin if it is tough. (This will differ depending on the tofu.) Slice each cake crosswise into rectangular slices ¼ inch thick, then cut the slices crosswise into rectangles about 1 inch long.
Strain the stock through wet cheesecloth to remove any impurities. If you are working in advance, refrigerate the stock and tofu separately, spreading the tofu in a single layer on a plate, sealed airtight. Otherwise, return the stock and tofu to the pot, and cover.
While the tofu is simmering or before, complete the remaining preparations.
Holding your knife parallel to the board, cut the chicken into slices about ¼ inch thick. With the broad side of a cleaver, spank the slices to make them evenly about ⅛ inch thin, then shred the meat crosswise against the grain into slivers about ⅛ inch wide. Cut long slivers into 1½-inch lengths. Stir the marinade ingredients briskly until smooth, scrape over the chicken, then toss with your fingers to coat each shred. Seal airtight, and refrigerate 30 minutes to 24 hours. The longer the chicken marinates, the plumper and tastier it will be.
Tear large spinach leaves into coarse pieces. Leave small leaves whole. Pump gently in cool water to clean, then shake off excess water. Blanch in plain boiling water to cover for 5 seconds, drain promptly, and rush under cold water until cool. Press gently to extract excess water. If you are working in advance, spread the leaves on a plate, seal airtight, and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before using.
Have all the ingredients within easy reach of your stovetop. Put individual soup bowls in a low oven to warm.
Combine the tofu, ham, and chicken stock in a non-aluminum stockpot, cover, and bring to a lively simmer over moderately high heat. Reduce the heat to maintain a slow, steady simmer, stir the chicken with your fingers, and gently slide it into the pot. Swish several times to separate the shreds, then turn off the heat. Taste the soup, and adjust with pepper-salt or salt if required. Add the spinach and stir once or twice to disperse the leaves.
Leftovers keep nicely and may be rewarmed in a covered pot over moderate heat.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.