This recipe is one I have been wanting to make for over a year but thought would be horribly laborious and complicated… well I was completely wrong! It’s easy to make (even easier with a blender) and just as delicious made at home.
My late mother-in-law was Malaysian and connecting with that part of her heritage is obviously deeply important to my lovely wife- it also goes without saying that when ill all she wants to eat is the food her mother made her!
Which is why recently I found myself hunting down a recipe for Yong Tau Foo, also known as ‘wow, that’s the best street food I’ve ever eaten’.
In January 2016, a year after getting engaged, we headed out to Malaysia for a few weeks so I could meet her mother’s family and experience the loveliness that is that very special country.
Her family is Chinese-Malay and her aunts were very excited to take us on a tour of, the capital city, Kuala Lumpur’s China Town. After many hours of excitedly journeying through the streets, picking over things in the markets… and trying on dragon heads… they led us through a tiny alleyway and into a very hot, very humid square, covered in busy tables and chairs. Picking cautiously over open pipes, rocky terrain and the occasional gas line we made our way to the centre of the square where three noisy food stalls were set up, each cooking over an open flame as customers shouted out orders seemingly at random.
Once my dietary requirements were explained to the aunts they pointed me towards the stall with a massive, bubbling wok of delicious smelling soupy oil from which the cook was pulling up colourful stuffed vegetables. I’m not normally a fan of anything deep-fried but the smell was so delightful I just couldn’t resist!
I cannot stress enough how great a decision that was.
This is the day I discovered one of my top 10 favourite foods: Yong Tau Foo. The stuff of dreams.
I love Malaysian food- pretty much all Malaysian food- but eating it generally requires a lot of adapting and it can be a struggle to keep the same beautiful ‘flavour profile’ (which is a very wanky, Masterchef-y way of describing food… but also spot-on). Not so with Yong Tau Foo! I can’t pronounce it but I can eat it. And so can you! Unless you’re a vegetarian.
A fair warning before you begin this recipe: you will need to use your hands so make sure you have something to help you easily clean them to hand otherwise you will get fish all over your house. Fact.
For the Paste:
4 fillets of fresh mackerel (around 480g)
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup water
Some white pepper
10 pieces okra, seeds removed, slit lengthways
1 large aubergine, cut into thick horizontal slices and then slit to create a pocket.
10 pieces deep fried tofu balls (tau foo pok)- you can find them in Chinese shops and online
Small bowl water
I cup cooking oil (keep it light and dear god don’t use rapeseed… oh that awful taste)
The green tips of a spring onion bunch
Put all of the ingredients for the paste into a small food processor or nutribullet and blend. You can also chop the fish up incredibly finely using a massive cleaver and add the other ingredients a little at a time. That would be very authentic but also rather difficult if your knife skills aren’t all that.
Prepare to stuff your vegetables. You’ll need a normal dinner knife for this and dipping it in the water first will stop the paste from sticking too badly. Try not to overload the vegetables as obviously they will shrink slightly during cooking.
You’ll first want to start frying the aubergines as they will take the longest to cook… please excuse the pictures from here on out- it got very dark very suddenly! You’ll know they’re done when they’re brown on each side and the stuffing has become firm.
If you want to be daring or just trust that you’re excellent with filleting then you could use a large, whole mackerel for this but make sure you’ve cleaned it and drained it well. Also, you are a brave, impressive person.
Other stuffed things commonly found in Yong Tau Foo include red chillies, bean curd skin sheets and bitter gourd but I’ve kept it to things you can generally easily find in England and also aren’t incredibly spicy.
The easiest way to remove okra’s insides is to delicately slit lengthways on one side and then slightly-less-delicately jam your finger in there from the tip and pull it all out.