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Loneliness and Kao Fu 烤麩

A lonely week, not through boredom, but through a feeling of isolation, like I’ve suddenly gone deaf.

I’m sure most who have ever migrated to the other side of the world, to a vastly different culture have experienced this. While Mark is at work, I spend my day wandering around alone, sometimes not even speaking. There is a sense that everything is muffled, I hear conversations but they wash over me, I haven’t a clue what anyone is saying.

The first delivery to my new home was a copy of the beautiful Taiwanese version of my book. As it was being delivered a passing neighbour stopped and spoke to me in Chinese for about a minute without pause. I nodded in acknowledgement and waived "bai-bai" before closing the door. I’d absolutely no idea what she was on about.

Close enough

The other day I went to the Carrefour in Gubei. As I waited to pay, ahead of me some commotion broke out between two women. They soon started screaming at each other and throwing punches. No one intervened for a long time however, with everyone seemingly happy to just watch, or film, in my case...

Eventually I get to the till and the check out lady asks if I have a membership card, which I don’t. She asks if I want a bag. I don’t, I already have one, and I flash my giant bag. But I don’t actually know what the woman is saying, just the order she asks the questions, and that I’ve learnt how to respond in a parrot fashion. I don’t know the Chinese word for bag or membership card, but I do know a checkout is the same the world over. I feel absolutely stupid.

All I really wanted to do was gossip with her about the fight.

Often I stick my music in, go for a walk, or take the metro somewhere new. It’s like a not-sponsored and forced journey of silence. I observe at a distance and have made some shaky assumptions after a fortnight of living here. To try and make sense of the situation without knowing what the cultural norms are is funny in itself.

The men seem to view smoking in public toilets as some sort of national sport. Fashion on the street is an endless catwalk of nonsense slogans, and absolutely no-one reads books on the metro, ever. I want to buy something to read just to protest, and take up smoking again, as perhaps asking for a light will be a great way to break the ice.

Me too babe, me too

But Mark loves his new job and feels so inspired here. He’d had ten months off work and is happy to be busy again. I went to visit him at his office where they have a beautiful bookshop, one of a handful of bookshops in Shanghai that stock English language cookbooks. Everything from Ottolenghi to a book of cocktails by Ryan Chetiyawardana. I bought a selection, including some Japanese and Taiwanese food magazines and sat in the sun reading, waiting for Mark to finish his day.

Need to get a train from Hayabusa immediately

The Chinese eat right after work, which is earlier than we’re used to, but we decided we would join them and go for dinner on the way home. Waiting for a table at Din Tai Fung in Xuijiahui we watched dumplings being made through a glass wall into the kitchen.

I guess there is a soothing, mindful monotony in cooking, and then there is the soul-destroying variety that involves eighteen folds per dumpling, hundreds or thousands of times. The young kitchen hands looked like they were about to kill themselves.

The restaurant’s xiaolongbao were wonderful (I must remember how soul crushing they are to create next time I order them), but I was so much more interested in one of the sides, that I enthusiastically ordered it before anything else. Bran dough (kao fu 烤麩), is rarely found on a Chinese restaurant menu in the West. It is a specialty of Shanghai and one I know well from my childhood.

Kao fu, where kao here means roast, is a springy sponge of wheat gluten with added bran. It soaks up the juices of the braising liquid and even though it is vegan, has a meaty richness. We had it served to us in a sweet and salty sauce, with wood ear mushrooms, peanuts and day lily. Though it doesn’t look like much, quite ugly in fact, I promise you it is delicious.

It is best served cold so it's best to make it ahead, perfect for a dinner party.

They just fell out of the fridge that way

Bran Dough 烤麩

(Serves 3-4 as a starter)


250g fresh bran dough (kao fu) or about 50g of dried bran dough soaked in warm water

100g bamboo shoots, fresh or tinned

1 handful of dried wood ear mushrooms

1 handful of dried day lily

1 slug of oil for frying

1 big handful of raw, skinned peanuts

60ml Chinese cooking wine, Shaoxing is most common

60ml light soy sauce

30ml dark soy or Shanghai braising soy

2tbsp sugar

2tbsp sesame oil

2 spring onions, finely diced

1 big handful of edamame, shucked (optional)


1. If using dried bran dough, place it in a bowl with plenty of warm water and leave it for about 15 minutes to come back to life. Discard the water and press as much of the liquid out as possible. Cut into 1 inch cubes.

2 .Soak the wood ear mushrooms and day lily in 200ml of freshly boiled water for 10 miuntes. Drain once soft but keep the water for later.

3. In a small pan, boil the peanuts for 10 minutes. Discard the water and set aside.

4. Heat the oil in a wok until very hot. Add the peanuts and stir for 30 seconds, add the bran dough and stir for a further 2 minutes. Next add the mushrooms, lily and bamboo shoots and stir well.

5. Add the cooking wine, light and dark soy, sugar and the reserved mushroom lily water and continue to stir. Reduce the heat down to low and cover with a lid. (My wok doesn’t have a lid so I use a large plate)

6. Simmer for 45 minutes and check every 15. Add the spring onion and edamame if using and stir through.

7. Decant into a bowl and leave to cool. It is best served room temperature or slightly chilled, but definitely not fridge cold.

Kao Fu, like revenge, is best served cold

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