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Jul 20, 2000 08:57 PM

Foo Yee?

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In Jim's What I Had for Dinner, he talks about watercress with foo yee. What exactly is foo yee? Is it preserved bean curd? I have tried to do a search on the Internet with no results.

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  1. Don't search the 'Net for this kind of (via search engine on homepage)! Hey, where else are you gonna find this kind of info?

    Foo yee has been discussed at length on these boards. It is indeed fermented (aka preserved) bean curd, a briney, slightly funky sauce that is ambrosial on vegatables (ordinary ones, that watercress, mustard greens, buddha's delight; using it on delicate special veg's like snow pea leaves or flowering chives is the height of vulgarity).

    As far as I know, only the Cantonese use the exact thing I'm talking about, though there are other versions throughout Asia. And it's very rare to see it on's one of the things (like preserved egg, salt fish and duck feet) that gringos are presumed not to like.


    15 Replies
    1. re: Jim Leff

      Yep, that's the stuff, only when you buy it in the grocer's, it's not a sauce, but cubes of toufu about the size of playing dice that have been "pickled" in brine, or brine with chillies or red rice paste, although this last one is not used in fast cooking much, but used in braised things. Foo yee and its cousins becomes a sauce when it hits the wok and you mush it around in hot oil before throwing in the vegetables. You don't usually see it on menus because when one orders greens as a dish in and of themselves the scenario goes like this: Customer -"What kinda greens you got tonight?" Waiter -" We've got Blah, blah, blah and blah. How do you want it?" Customer -"I'll take Blah-blah with ( foo yee, shrimp paste, just garlic, oyster sauce, etc.)" The ritual of ordering fresh fish in a Chinese restaurant also runs along these lines. Foo yee is pretty common throughout the entire region of Gwangdong, and popular in Taiwan, too, where they also eat the epitome of stinkies, an somewhat drier pickled toufu very much like a cheese that's a popular savoury nosh.
      P.S. Moo Goo Gai Pan is a bastardization of Maw-Gwoo Gai Pien (lit. Mushroom Chicken Slices), a venerable dish of fresh mushrooms and thin patties of beaten white-meat chicken in a very light, clear sauce.
      Keep beating 'em over the head with the "I'm no Gringo" stuff, Jim. It really IS like breaking broncos - Chinese restauranteurs are soooo convinced that nobody but Chinese could possibly ever appreciate a good fish head casserole..... But I could go on and on....

      1. re: Maria Eng

        I grew incredibly envious reading your message. I feel culturally disabled...never have I had the experience of a Chinese waiter approaching me like that: "we've got x, y, z. How do you want it done?" I've had bits and pieces of that dialog, with a few options discussed, but it's never been that kind of easygoing interchange. there's always at least one of the Three Barriers: 1. language, 2. limited kitchen, and/or 3. "gringos don't like that".

        In restaurants where I've been a regular (e.g. the late, lamented Shing Kee), I came close. But never that nice, pleasant dialog. Never have I been privvy to all the options and permutations.

        Know what? I'm going to learn a couple hundred words of Cantonese. The basic dishes, the basic sauces. It's clearly the only way. Any fluent Cantonese speakers out there want to teach a class in food Cantonese? We'll find some way to do it via the site, it'll be cool. Email me!!


        1. re: Jim Leff

          As Maria says, the customer starts the dialog. I bet the servers will respond to you if you ask the right questions. The start of planning your order starts with asking three questions: What kinds of greens today? What's the freshest fish today? What is the special soup today? That's how we got the ong choy with foo yee (although I thought I asked for shrimp paste!), and the ultra-delish mah bahn steamed fish.

          I'd also make a pitch for giving the wo choy menu - the handwritten in chinese menu for 4, 6 etc. people - a try.

          1. re: melanie

            Hi Melanie

            Yes, of course...but maybe I didn't make clear that I do know all the greens, all the sauces. And I know how to ask...just not in Cantonese. As I said, either waiters don't speak enough english to really let me plumb the list (they give up after a couple of misunderstood words in either direction), or they don't trust me enough (NOT my fault! It's just that the stereotype can be invincible!), or the kitchen simply doesn't offer much (usually the case when waiters speak good English and are willing to really talk to me and see what I know!)

            My only really rewarding conversations with chinese waiters have taken place in americanized chinese places, where the waiter grimaces disdainfully and apologizes that he can't serve me more serious stuff.

            Gotta learn some Cantonese. I'm totally focused on it.

            1. re: Jim Leff
              Mary Niepokuj

              It's out of print now, but if you can get ahold of a copy of Jim McCawley's book _An Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters_, it might help you out some. The book was designed to help non-Mandarin and non-Cantonese speakers decipher signs listing specials in Chinese restaurants. At the very least, you might be able to point at characters to make yourself understood. McCawley was a professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago, and a chowhound of note. For years we kept in our glove compartment a tattered copy of a guide to Chicago ethnic restaurants that he'd compiled for a linguistics conference in Chicago years ago; whenever we went to Chicago we'd hit a few of the places he recommended and were never disappointed.

              1. re: Jim Leff

                Jim, you were halfway to a solution the other night...Just buttonhole the manager, or better yet his school-age kid hanging out behind the cash register, and grill them with the appropriate questions. They may have to call over a waiter or cook to have a 3-way consultation, but so what? (I do think also if you know the Cantonese names of what you want it'll make things easier since many times English names for them are given quite arbitrarily by fruit&veg men and importers. But that's not an immediate concern.)
                If they think you're nuts, be politely insistent or if really stuck pretend you'll have to leave. This usually makes them relent. When they see you really do know your stuff and you're chowing down happily on their Chef's best Chinese-menu-only dish, they'll remember and respect you next time you come.

                PS-My Cantonese isn't fluent, but my best vocabulary revolves around food (big surprise?). If I can help in any way,just ask.

                1. re: Jim Leff

                  You've got a good ear for the tones of Cantonese. Maybe you can get Dave S. to send you a tape...

                  Wish I could find the flash cards I studied as an adolescent.

              2. re: Jim Leff
                Chris Bridges

                Again, I'm about a month late with a response to this string, but I was amused, Jim, to hear you expressing your frustration with the degree of effort it takes to convince a waiter that "this gringo DOES like that!"

                It reminds me of an interchange on the board back in January of 1999 when I was bemoaning the same thing. At that time I said "yes, it's possible to have some degree of credibility if you make the effort, if you become a regular, if you are nice but knowledgeable and not superior,etc. But every time your favorite place closes you have to start all over again; every time you go to a promising place in another city you have to buck the attitude. I get worn out. I was thinking maybe we could come up with a couple of buttons written in Chinese with clever sayings like 'I love bitter melon' or 'Horlicks is the greatest'that we could wear in to the restaurant. Maybe that would help..."

                Anyway, the "food Cantonese" study group sounds great to me.


                1. re: Chris Bridges

                  Yes, Horlick's is like the magic incantation. Pretty weird, since my mom used to drink it in soda fountains in Brooklyn!

                  Would love to do a food Cantonese educational thing here on site. Problem is I have no time whatsoever to set it plate is pretty full, as it were. If anyone's interested in brainstorming with me and doing legwork, please email me (address above). I'd need serious commitment, sense doing it half-way...


              3. re: Maria Eng

                Maria -- apparently your Cantonese is a lot better than mine (although I am BAFFLED over your "Maw-Gwoo Gai Pien" that Minnanhua? [Amoy]), so I would like to pose to you one of the great mysteries of life:

                Pakchoi (bokchoy) is a standard food in the PRC, although they call it something else (mandarin rendition of "pakchoi" meaning standard western CABBAGE there). It is a little less popular in HK, and is usually tough and white there; if you want the good [PRC; green and leafier] stuff, you have to find "Shanghai pakchoi" actually. Some restaurants will only have choisum, ongchoi, kaichoi or kailanchoi, but most will have one or the other of the pakchois (at least that BAD HK version). In some places pakchoi shows up on the table by default, like free bread in the west.

                Cut to the US. I can almost **NEVER** find pakchoi in a restaurant. What's the deal?!! It is in every supermarket I go to, including most "gringo" shops these days, yet every single restaurant -- Chinatown included -- steers me to kailanchoi when I ask for pakchoi. They tell me it's because pakchoi doesn't "keep" too well, and yet this didn't seem like an impediment in HK or in the PRC.

                I don't know why all these other immigrants have decided that pakchoi is to be shunned, as it certainly would be my Sinoveggie of choice. In fact, those tough, crunchy spears of kailanchoi that I usually get stuck with make me think I'm eating the CHOPSTICKS....

                1. re: Jim Wong

                  Gee, I dunno...I keep all versions of the stuff in the fridge for a week or more, carefully wrapped, and it's OK. Maybe it's because there's a little waste of the outer leaves to wilt after thet much time, maybe it requires more prep than the gai lan. i.e. cutting or sectioning the heads, whereas the other stuff just needs the ends of the stalks whacked off and a quick rinse. BTW, My Cantonese really isn't that good, I just transliterated the Maw-Gwoo.... the way I hear it in my head. I'm Cantonese by marriage, husband's fam. from HK.

                  1. re: Jim Wong

                    I hate to sound like a real idiot gringo, but what are the differences? Out on the West Coast (in markets), we can get a mature green leafy thing with a moderately thick white center, and in Asian markets, I've seen two different kinds of what I've always called baby bokchoi. They're smaller. One of them has a thin slightly greenish center, the other is more like a smaller version of the standard variety. But from your posting it is clear that there must be several different, similar things out there. If it's not too much trouble to explain, I'd appreciate learning the differences.


                    1. re: e.d.

                      e.d. and everybody... I'm going for my shopping safari in Chinatown this weekend. I'll look with fresh eyes and try to describe what's most common and the transliterated names (from Cantonese) and post it all sometime next week. Stay tuned.

                      1. re: e.d.

                        Not sure I *can* explain the diffs, since I myself get all confused. But here goes: pakchoi in HK is usually somewhat WHITE, and fairly stiff.

                        On the mainland -- and I might guess Taiwan as well -- the pakchoi is softer and pretty solid green. It is, however, called "qingcai" (green veg), because "baicai" [Mandarin reading of pakchoi] has somehow wound up being good ol' American "cabbage".

                        Unfortunately, "qingcai" in Cantonese ["tsengchoi" maybe?] gets you nowhere either -- it is a generic catchall, and will usually draw a "which one?". Unless you speak SOME language well enough to say "the type seen up North", you'll probably get stuck with the local, WHITE, version. Or worse yet, kailanchoi.

                        It is not until you get into a big SUPERMARKET that it all becomes clear -- the WHITE one is labeled (plain) "Pakchoi" and the GREENER one is labeled "Shanghai Pakchoi". That would also explain why the green one is the default in the PRC, and the white one is rarely ever seen. Incidentally, the ENGLISH on the card usually says "Brassica Shanghai". So there -- if you're having trouble getting your selection across in Cantonese or Mandarin, just find a Latin-speaking waiter!!!!

                        By the way, I usually see the mini version -- "baby bokchoy" -- of the WHITE type. I have seen the greener ones as well, but it's not too common. In any case, I only see the small ones in HK -- not sure if I've EVER seen them in the PRC. They truly seem to dislike the white ones -- big OR small -- as much as I do.

                        Choi sum, kaichoi, and kailanchoi are similar veggies, but their stalks are round and much harder. Like brocolli. The LEAVES are actually quite tasty -- if I buy them at home, I'll just THROW AWAY the stalks, but in a restaurant it seems that what you get is 90% stalks. To be fair, the stalks aren't pakchoi's selling point either, but at least they're a lot better than with these other chois. Besides, with pakchoi, you still get 30% of the plant as leaves; with kailanchoi, for example, it seems more like 5-10%.

                        If I could get JUST THE LEAVES, I'd be happy with most any of them. But the downside (stalks) in the case of kailanchoi or choi sum is a lot worse, and there's more of 'em. Kaichoi I've sort of forgotten.

                        Pakchoi (either kind) looks completely different from the other 3, and is easy to pick out, but if you asked what the visible difference is between those others, I couldn't tell you. And I say "3" instead of "4", because I've completely forgotten what ONG CHOI looks (or tastes) like. For all I know it might look like pakchoi...but I tend to doubt it. Pakchoi is the "lone wolf" of the Sinogreens family.

                        I hope that serves as an intro. Maybe someone who knows these better could explain in more detail. The question remains, though: If pakchoi is so prevalent in HK and PRC restaurants, and is so prevalent in US markets and supermarkets, why the &^%*#@$ do US restaurants (Chinatown included) avoid it like the plague????

                        1. re: Jim Wong

                          In San Francisco, the all green baby cabbage with broader and more tender leaves would be called qingchoi in Cantonese. These are the same cabbages I first enjoyed in Hangzhou/Suzhou area.