Fu was developed centuries ago by Buddhist monks, probably as a meat substitute. There are many types of fu, but most resemble a crisp, light biscuit. With 29 percent protein and less than 1 percent fat, dried fu (wheat gluten), like tofu and tempeh, is an Asian food with great potential for health-conscious consumers. Versatile, quick cooking, and easy to prepare, fu adapts to any style of cooking. It has a mild, pleasant flavor and, when cooked, absorbs other flavors exceptionally well. Easy to digest, salt-free, and nutritious, fu is considered an excellent food for children and sick people.
The first step in making fu is the same as for seitan (seasoned wheat gluten): wheat flour is mixed with water and kneaded to activate the wheat’s natural gluten. After resting for an hour or so, the dough is rinsed to remove the starch (carbohydrate) and bran, thus concentrating the gluten (protein) of the wheat. Up to this point, the process is the same as for making seitan. However, the rubbery gluten is next mixed with an equal amount of wheat flour. The dough is rolled out, cut into strips that are wrapped around long metal poles, and baked until slightly browned. Depending on the variety of fu being made, up to three more strips of dough may be added and baked, one layer at a time. The fu is then lightly steamed to soften its texture and leaven it. Finally it is sliced, dried, and packaged.
There are several types of fu based on shape. The most common of these are kuruma, zeni, zenryu, and shonai fu. In Japanese kuruma means “wheel” and zeni, “coin.” Both are doughnut shaped, but kuruma fu is much larger. Zenryu fu is an intermediate-sized, doughnut-shaped whole wheat variety. Shonai fu is a thin, flat variety. While all the other types are a combination of wheat gluten and unbleached white flour, Mitoku’s round Zenryu Fu is made with half gluten flour and half whole wheat flour.
Fu can be cooked in a variety of ways to add interest as well as substantial protein to whole foods cuisine. Some of the most popular ways of enjoying fu are the simplest. A few pieces added to vegetable soup transform it into a protein-rich stew. When cooking with fu, keep in mind that beans or soy seasonings such as miso and shoyu complement and increase its usable protein.
For most recipes, fu is first reconstituted by soaking in lukewarm water for 5-10 minutes. When it is soft, gently squeeze out excess water and add the fu to stews, casseroles, beans, and simmered vegetable dishes. For a clear soup, simmer whole cakes of fu for 15 minutes in a vegetable or kombu stock seasoned with natural soy sauce, and serve with a sprinkle of minced scallion. Add fu to hearty stews during the last 15 minutes of cooking to let it absorb the full flavor of the ingredients. When camping or traveling, add fu to soups and one-pot meals-it is the perfect lightweight, high-protein food.
Deep-fried fu enhances many dishes. Fu quickly fries to a crisp, light brown and doesn’t tend to absorb oil. Do not soak fu before frying. Simply add a few rounds to moderately hot oil (about 340° F) – the oil should be hot enough so the fu sizzles when added, but it should not be smoking. Fry for about 1 minute, then flip and fry for another minute. Remove all pieces from one batch and place on wire racks or absorbent paper before adding more fu to the oil. When being used in soups or casseroles, deep-fried fu is usually dowsed in boiling water to remove excess oil. Dip the pieces of fried fu in boiling water or place a single layer in a colander, pour boiling water over the pieces, then turn them and dowse again. Allow the fu to drain for a minute before using.
Deep-fried fu is delicious simmered in a shoyu-seasoned broth. It also lends rich flavor to soups and stews and can be added to casseroles. Try cutting a couple rounds of deep-fried fu into bite-sized pieces and cooking it with hijiki and vegetables, or use as protein-rich croutons on soups such as onion or split pea. Lightly sprayed with shoyu or tossed with a little garlic powder or Italian seasonings right after frying, fu “croutons” add a tasty crunch to tossed salads.
Shonai fu is especially good in miso soup. It may be broken or cut into small pieces or strips and added dry to the soup. For an “instant” miso soup, simply bring a small piece of kombu, water, and several bite-sized pieces of shonai fu to a simmer. Remove the kombu, simmer the fu 1-2 minutes, then season to taste with your favorite miso. Garnish with slivered green onion, if desired.
For a quick and easy alternative to main course vegetable pies, use reconstituted shonai fu instead of a crust (see Squash “Pie” recipe). The texture will be different, but the results are just as delicious, and you’ll be adding high-quality protein while avoiding the high fat content of most piecrusts.