I am heading down an experimental path with my cooking lately. It started with the purple sweet potato I used to re-create a traditional rice dumpling (tang yuan) dessert in my last recipe. This week, I am using an ingredient that I have never cooked with although it is familiar to me. This ingredient is very well known in the Chinese cuisine. You might have even eaten it before at a Chinese banquet. This ingredient is especially popular around Chinese New Year since its name is phonetically the same as the Chinese words that mean “generate prosperity.” Can you guess what ingredient I am referring to?
For many Chinese, my description of the ingredient is probably a complete give-away. For many Westerners however, my clues can be entirely ambiguous. You may have not even heard of this ingredient, although you could have eaten it at a more authentic Chinese restaurant. The ingredient I’m referring to is “fat choy” (髮菜), also spelled “fà cài” in Mandarin. In plain simple English, this ingredient is also called “black moss”.What is this food with a funny sounding name? [By the way, the "fat" in "fat choy" is pronounced "fàh," not "fat" as in "obese." I had to point this out in case you were giggling all this time thinking the word is pronounced in the latter way! =) ] Ok, back to the ingredient. “Fat choy” is a very deep green edible algae that looks like threads or hair strands. This is why the Chinese call this algae “fat choy” which literally translates to “hair vegetable.” This algae’s color is so dark that it almost appears black in color when dried. In the photo above, you can see that the fat choy can even appear brownish black after it has been cooked. And if you are a health nut, you may find it interesting to know that fat choy is related to the spirulina edible algae that is often used in super green foods, health supplements and drinks.
Research has however shown that fat choy has no nutritional value and can even be difficult to digest if consumed in large amounts. Fat choy is also flavor-less. For these reasons, I have only come to know this ingredient through my parent’s cooking and at restaurants rather than in my own kitchen. Being in an exploratory mood lately though, I decided to make this traditional Tofu Skin Water Chestnut Soup with Shiitake Mushroom and Black Moss. The good thing here is that fat choy is one of the easiest ingredients to work with. Just see my recipe instructions below to see what I mean.
- Break the bean curd sticks with your hands to about 3 inch long pieces. Rinse and soak the bean curd stick pieces and shiitake mushrooms separately until soft (about 20 mins).
- Bring a small pot of water to boil to blanch the pork. In a separate large pot, boil 12 cups of water to cook the soup.
- While the water is cooking, cut the pork to 2 inch cubes. When the small pot boils, blanch the pork. Drain and set aside.
- When the large soup pot boils, add the ginger, shiitake mushrooms, and blanched pork. Cook covered for a few minutes on high heat until the water boils again. Turn the heat to Low and simmer for 30 minutes.
- In the meanwhile, rinse and peel the water chestnuts with a knife. Cut the peeled water chestnuts in half and put in a bowl of cold water to prevent them from browning. Rinse the pearl barley and black moss in separate bowls. Drain and set aside.
- After cooking for 30 minutes, add all remaining ingredients to the soup pot except for the black moss. Cook covered on Low heat for 1.5 hours.
- In the last 5 minutes of cooking, add the black moss to the soup pot to cook. Turn off the heat. Sprinkle a pinch of salt to taste and serve.