Many doughy, starchy dumpling skins can be made from scratch but dumplings encased in tofu skin require a trip to an Asian market. Dried tofu skin may sound odd to you, as it does not resemble the soft white blocks of tofu that most of us encounter at the market. Nor does tofu skin resemble the dense pieces of pressed (baked) tofu sold in cryovac packages. Tofu skin (腐皮, fu pí in Mandarin, yuba in Japanese) is basically the thin layer that forms as soy milk boils in a shallow pan. (Think of the film of milk that forms when boiling milk.) The sheets of tofu skin is removed and dried for later use.
While there is great nutrition in tofu skin, what I enjoy about it most is its silky-soft-rubbery texture, which can be dropped into broth for soup and rolled up and manipulated into mock meat. But the best application for tofu skin (in my opinion) is for Cantonese dim sum in which tofu skin is used as a chewy, silky wrapper or a crackly crisp wrapper. The two most common sightings of tofu skin at dim sum are crisp shrimp and tofu skin rolls (xiā fu pí juǎn) and steamed tofu skin rolls filled with meat and vegetables. I’ve always loved those kinds of preparations involving tofu skin but never attempted to make them at home. A few weeks ago, I purchased a package of “fresh tofu skin” from the refrigerated section of one of my favorite Chinese markets (Lion Foods on Saratoga (off the 280 freeway) in San Jose, CA, to be exact) and took it home to play with.
What is tofu skin like? How do you work with tofu skin?
Right out of the packaging, it’s oddly weird, like thin oil cloth. There were 3 skins in the package I bought and each one unfolded into a large circle resembling a small tablecloth. You’d think that the stuff wasn’t meant for consumption. I researched a number of reliable cookbooks, such as Florence Lin’s terrific Chinese Vegetarian Cooking to figure out how to make tofu skin pliable. Many authors suggested soaking tofu skin in hot water “until soft enough to handle.” I didn’t quite know what that meant.
So I put hot water into a brownie baking pan (a square baking pan like what I’d use for making steamed rice sheets, sha he fen) and dropped in a piece of tofu skin. YOWZA(!) within about 30 seconds, the skin went from translucent tan to opaque buff. What’s more, the skin expanded in size by roughly 25 percent. When the skin was left for 2 to 3 minutes, it became so soft that it could be easily torn if not handled with care. For my purpose of making dim sum tofu skin dumplings, soaking the skins for too long yielded overly wet results and how was I to seal the skin up for frying? Cantonese tofu skin dumpling preparations require that the filling be encased in the skin and then deep-fried and served, or deep-fried and steamed with some sauce/gravy before serving.
Just a little moisture please!
Several tries later, I realized that soaking wasn’t going to work. The skins absorbed too much water. Then I found that some authors sealed up their tofu skin dumplings with a slurry of water and cornstarch or flour. So I mixed some cornstarch and water up and brushed it on both sides of the pieces of skin and they ended up becoming just soft enough to fold and roll, and as they sat, they self-sealed. The cornstarch helps to crisp up the skin too during deep frying. So that’s what I did to make one of my husband’s favorite dim sum, crispy shrimp and tofu skin rolls.
How to buy and store tofu skin
My experience is limited to purchasing tofu skin at Chinese and Vietnamese markets where they are shelved in the refrigerated section, near other tofu products and fresh noodles. The package says “keep frozen” but what I buy is never frozen. I don’t get that. In the freezer section, there are packages of tofu skin, already cut into neat pieces, but I’ve not ventured into that territory – yet! Once home, refrigerate your package of tofu skin. Keep leftover pieces of tofu skin or precut pieces in a zip-top plastic bag to prevent drying.
Cutting and keeping tofu skin moist for dumpling making
Think of it as fabric and cut with scissors. You don’t have to be neat. For dumpling wrappers, I cut the tofu skin into 5 by 5-inch squares – basically the same size as a small eggroll skin. Once cut, keep the tofu skin covered with a damp towel or in a plastic bag to prevent drying. As you work, keep the awaiting skins covered, lest they dry out. If they do, you can pat each one with a damp kitchen towel and it should soften just a tad.
For the purposes of Asian dumpling making, aim to moisten the skin just enough to fold them up and seal them. Otherwise, it’s hard to get them nice and crisp during deep-frying.