Auntie Ruby's Hakka Yong Tau Foo - An Introduction

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

It was Levi Strauss who said that "the process of cooking is the process by which nature is turned into culture."

Nothing can be more true when it comes to Hakka Yong Tau Foo. In the hands of a Hakka cook, some common and ordinary ingredients are mixed, chopped, stuffed, steamed, boiled and fried. The end result is a classic masterpiece. 

When it comes to Yong Tau Foo, it is Hakka and the rest. The rest are relegated to the generic pool of YTFs, much like how Hainanese Chicken Rice leads the pack.

Unlike the ubiquitous Hainanese dish, a good authentic Hakka YTF, though common in Sabah and parts of West Malaysia, is hard to come by in Singapore. And I have hoped - and tried - whenever a stall or restaurant claimed to offer it. Maybe I have gotten used to my Mum's version.

In fact, this was amongst the first dish I made when I tried to recreate home in my earlier years here. I can recall the desperate overseas phone call I made.. "Mum, how do you tear the skin off the fish fillet?" "Chun Zai, scrape of the meat with a spoon!" Ouch. I will never forget this tip. 

I don't have my Mum's  recipe written down for this but I have eaten it many times. It is one of her favorite party dishes. I had to rely on some memories to make it. I and am glad to report that "Project HYTF" was successful. One more Auntie Ruby's recipe to (b)log in.

You will be happy to know that it is actually quite easy to make this. Some effort is needed and an extra pair of hands or two will help. You can choose to keep it simple and just focus on making two or three types. In fact, for daily dinners, you do not need to make the whole spread.

Scraping the meat of the "Batang" fillet
I will use a series of posts to describe the full range of making good HYTF at home, from the meat stuffing to the sauces. Along the way, be reminded that acquiring techniques and principles are just as important as recipes. If you are new to this kind of recipe (i.e. mixing meat stuffing, frying, soup, sauces etc), just start slowly and along the way, you can increase the types of stuffed HYTF pieces.

In this post, I will start with the heart of any YTF, the stuffing (of course) and go on to describe how brinjal HYTF is made.

A Hakka YTF pre-mix. This is a 500gm pork portion.
The stuffing is made from pork, fish, salted fish, garlic, spring onions, corn flour, salt and water. Unlike commercial Cantonese YTF which is mostly fish paste with a lot of flour added, HYTF has a meaty bite and more intense flavours. And the stuffing should not be a ultra smooth paste (e.g. like fishball) but you should be able to bite into recognisable pork, fish and an occasional bit of garlic. 

Double choppers! 15-20 mins will do
Pork: Use pork with some fat to ensure the filling is moist and tastier. Remove skin. Ask the butcher to grind the meat twice.

Fish - Mackerel or "Batang" is best for this. It is very easy to scrape the meat off with a large spoon. The bones go into the soup stock. Here in this recipe, I am using a pork-fish 2:1 ratio. But you can make it 1:1 or add even more fish (1:2) if you don't mind paying for it :) 

Salted fish - The best is the very fragrant "Mui Heong" salted fish. 

A recipe goes this way:

Frying the "test sample."
500 gm of minced pork
500 gm of fish paste
1 tsp of salt
Salted fish (about two 2-inch pieces)
Some garlic and spring onions
Some corn flour
White Pepper

You need to mix these together and give it some good chopping time with a chopper (or two!). Apart from mixing the ingredients, this will also add some 'bounce' to the texture. Mince and chop the stuffing mixture for at least 20 minutes. You can also use a food processor to process the food (duh).   
Test the stuffing first

After you have mixed and chopped the filling, create some meatballs and fry them up. Do you like the texture? If not, go back to the drawing chopping board. Taste? Adjust if you need to, i.e. add salt etc.Once you get it right the first time, you will hardly need to do test it as long as you follow the recipe.

Get this right, and the rest of your HYTF is simply waiting to happen.

A good HYTF brinjal (aka aubergine, eggplant) is fantastic. The slightly bitter taste and unique texture of brinjal combines wonderfully with the savory stuffing. And the shape of the diagonally sliced brinjal piece is a ready receptor for the stuffing. It is a match made in heaven. Culture may have assembled it but it seem like they are by nature, bedfellows. In teaching someone to make HYTF, this is a good piece to start with. When fried together and dipped in oyster-flavoured sweet sauce, your first few bites will make you realise how good Hakka cuisine is in using and elevating cheap and common ingredients.

Shallow pan-frying in medium-high heat
Cut your brinjal at an angle to create an oval piece. Cut a slit to create a pocket and spoon in some filling. You can use shallow pan frying or deep-frying. I prefer shallow pan-fry as the pan will sear the brinjal, caremelising and crisping the skin and sides. Deep frying is easier if you have a large batch to fry. Brinjal absorps oil like a sponge and by pan-frying, it uses less oil. Main thing is the oil must be hot (medium-high fire). The outside of the brinjal should be well caramelised, crisp and charred in some parts while the inside is firm and moist. It should take no more than 5 minutes to cook a batch.

Stuffed bean curd sheets ("foo chook") is another fantastic piece but we will wait for a near future post for the details.

However, great as brinjal and bean curd are, they are still second fiddle, playing supporting roles to the main star. And which is that?

Tasted good but different from the real KL McCoy

Stuffed ("Yong") Tofu, from which this dish derives it's name, is the main star. But in Singapore, it is impossible to get a kind of tofu which is easily available in KL. The KL version - called 'soi tofu" in Cantonese - has the right texture: silky smooth and taste divine when served stuffed, after a brief pan fry, in soup or sauce. And yet, it is firm enough to hold the stuffing. The local varieties here are either too hard (terrible awful texture for HYTF but what choice do we have?) or too soft (cannot hold the stuffing).

Water or "soi tofu", which has a curved surface
My mum has tried to come out with all sorts of tricks to get the local varieties to work but to no avail, If someone can make this type of Tofu here, many Hakkas will be grateful, including yours truly.

In the meantime, we have to settle for HYTF with just a supporting cast.

Part 2 - Part 3 - Recipe summary

You Might Also Like


  1. Hi Food Canon, found yr beautiful blog by chance and had been following it since. This Hakka Yong Tau Foo dish is very popular in my family and must say it's very yummy with salted fish added. :))

  2. Gorgeous pics! Thanks so much for sharing

  3. Hi Pastor (can I address you like that?)
    Regarding the salted fish (mui heong), may I ask what kind is it?
    Is it mui heong tenggiri or some other kind of fish. In the above
    photo is the fish the 2 cylindrical objects that look like fish cake?
    If it is then it looks like ikan kurau (which is not mui heong)

    Much obliged if you could let me know. Thanks

  4. Ernie - In the pic, on the chopping board, I was using the Ikan Kurau salted fish. Mui Heong is cheaper, softer and thus more often used in YTF. But both will work well too. If I have Mui Heong, I would rather use that since you are mixing n chopping the salted fish in, more for the taste than texture. Ikan kurau best eaten as is - it gets crispy when pan seared, the texture to be enjoyed and best eaten as is. In short, cook with Mui Heong but eat Ikan Kurau directly.