In the west, it’s all about seitan. In Chinese vegetarian cooking, there’s other types of wheat meat, one being kao fu (also known as kau fu) – a classic Shanghai wheat gluten dish typically served at dim sum or as a cold appetizer.
Made from just wheat gluten and water, kao fu is first leavened and then baked or steamed, resulting in a spongy texture with lots of air pockets. The mouth feel is light and airy with a soft chewiness. So delicate and tender compared to seitan’s much denser texture. Like a sponge, it’s perfect for soaking up and absorbing flavors especially when braised.
Usually found in the refrigerated section at the Asian supermarket as cubes or as one big chunk. Often labeled as “Wheat Gluten” or “Wheat Dough”, it’s relatively inexpensive at a couple of bucks for 10 ounces. Out of the package, kao fu looks suspiciously like a big ol’ slice of bread, see above.
Looks like a bowl of diced bread cubes, no? While cutting up the kao fu, it even feels like spongey bread too but wet instead of dry. Traditionally, the wheat gluten is deep fried before stir-frying, but I skipped that part and went with a light pan fry.
Once cooked, it’s very juicy having absorbed all of the water and flavor. I like to serve the kao fu as a meal with rice and a side vegetable instead of an appetizer.
Serves 4 as part of a meal
10-ounce package fresh wheat gluten, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
4 dried Chinese shiitake mushrooms
1/2 ounce dried lily bulbs
1/2 ounce dried black wood ear fungus
1 medium carrot, roll cut
1/3 cup shelled edamame
2-3 pieces of star anise
1/2-inch piece of fresh ginger, minced
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine
1 tablespoon brown sugar
3 cups water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Put the dried mushrooms, dried wood ear fungus and dried lily bulbs into separate bowls, cover each with cold water. Soak for about an hour or so until soften. Drain and rinse clean. Cut off the mushroom stems and slice. Trim off any hard spots on the wood ear and pinch off the hard end of the lily bulbs.
For the sauce, combine the soy sauce, rice wine and sugar in a small bowl and set aside.
Heat the wok until hot. Swirl in the oil and add the ginger, stir fry until fragrant. Add the wheat gluten to lightly brown, if it starts sticking to the wok, add a bit of water. Next, add the mushrooms, lily bulbs, wood ear, carrot, and edamame, stir fry for about one minute.
Add the sauce mixture, star anise and water. Stir well and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce the heat to low and let simmer for about an hour until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. Serve hot, at room temperature or chilled.