Tofu is a tricky bugger. For every time someone has prepared a pretty good dish of the soybean curd, I can count five times that I either failed to make it taste half decent, or simply abandoned it in the fridge for weeks, unable to conjure up the inspiration necessary to transform it into something palatable.
While organising a dinner once, I was instructed to make a vegan cheesecake which contained no dairy, no sugar, no carbohydrates and, in my opinion, absolutely no fun. Tofu was the main ingredient and for years afterwards, I could not go near the stuff without feeling culinary boredom wash over me like a white and sludgy tsunami. With this in mind when, the other day, I received an invite to have a meal prepared for me at 88 restaurant at Nairobi’s Villa Rosa Kempinski hotel by Chef Wu Zong Xung, a beancurd epiphany was the last thing I expected.
Chef Wu was recently hired to reinvent the 88 menu, after it was decided that Pan-Asian was not so exciting and that the restaurant would fair better if they focussed exclusively on one type of cuisine, in this case Chinese. The chef hails from the southern Chinese province of Sichuan, a place famous for foods that are more spicy and complex than your more delicate and saucy Cantonese fare. When Chef Wu, who was just completing a stint working at high-end restaurants in Iran and India and had recently watched a TV program on the influx of Chinese people in Kenya, was notified of the job opening, he decided he might as well come over here and try the country on for size.
On his first days in Nairobi, Chef Wu headed to Yaya Centre to source ingredients for his new menu but, unable to find what he needed, he stopped the first Chinese person he saw and asked them for advice. After being pointed in the direction of a shopping centre further down Argwings Kodhek road, he turned up at the Chinese Supermarket and instantly recognised one of the women working behind the till as the same person that he had seen on the TV show. With that, it was settled: he says he knew it was his destiny to be here and proceeded to ring up a massive bill at the supermarket where, he insists, he fully intends to do most of his shopping moving forward.
The menu for my dinner at 88 was decided with the help of Anand, the manager. My dining companion and I selected an array of Cantonese and Sichuan dishes. The “vegetable salad” was ordered almost as an afterthought, nothing about it on the menu screeched “pick me” but as my dining companion was vegetarian, we needed to cater to her tastes too.
When the vegetable salad was placed on the table in front of me, I had no idea what it was. “Is this a bamboo root?” I asked the waiter, who shrugged and went to get Anand for further elucidations. In front of me lay a plate upon which the only discernible green vegetable was lashings of fresh coriander. Apart from that it was just chilis, peanuts and these obscure, gnarled and porous white fingerlings. Anand arrived to explain that they were something Chef Wu had picked up at the supermarket called “tofu skin”, which is the dried-out and then scrunched up surface that forms on soy milk when boiling it to make tofu. When dried, they look like those rawhide knots that are given to dogs as treats and to make them edible one must place the stiff ribbons in warm water overnight and then marinate them. In this case, Chef Wu had used rice wine vinegar and the results turned out to be as satisfying as any chicken marinated, grilled and then tossed into a salad.
In the space of a few days, tofu skin has risen to the top of my beancurd list of desires. It is textured, it holds flavour and if the Youtubers are halfway right, it can be used in a myriad of different recipes.
Certainly I am no expert on Sichuan food, something I hope to make amends to in the not too distant future. But if my Nairobi experience has taught me anything, it is that restaurants that decide to specialise, instead of desperately attempting to please everyone are, in this era of discerning gourmet Nairobians, destined to do quite well. It follows that a high-end speciality Chinese restaurant should pique the interest of the army of Nairobian food lovers clamouring for a culinary surprise. I, for one, fully intend to come back and sample more of the regional delights Chef Wu has in store for us.
Katy Fentress was a guest at 88 restaurant on the 1st floor of Villa Rosa Kempinski hotel.
This article was originally published in Yummy Magazine