How to Turn Soy Milk Into Sweet Tofu Fa

The custardy Hong Kong dessert is what fashion designer Peter Som calls an “antidote to the world’s spiraling chaos.”


By Peter Som

Published on November 29, 2022

Welcome to Grandma’s Notebook, a series unearthing the hand-written recipes of  Mary Woo, the late grandmother of fashion designer Peter Som. Follow along as we dive into 20 years of recipes that trace her Chinese American immigrant experience. Along the way, we’ll discover hidden family secrets, new and enticing flavors, and priceless hand-me-down dishes that deserve a second life in your kitchen. 

Tofu Fa is a Chinese classic whose sublime simplicity is hard to describe: The sweet version, my favorite, is a delicate, custardy tofu drizzled with ginger-sugar syrup. If that sounds bland or boring, stay with me—you haven’t tried my grandmother’s.

A few pages in from lion’s head meatballs (which you can read about here), tofu fa is dated 1973. That was a terrible year for Grandma. My grandfather, 67 at the time, was diagnosed with leukemia. Four and a half months later, he died. I was two years old and recall very little, but the death was hard on my mom. She remembers the day my grandma moved out of the family home and said goodbye to her flower-filled backyard. The new abode was a small San Francisco apartment with a deck that could barely fit her beloved orchids. 

This tofu fa recipe hails from Hong Kong. My Uncle James, who’s always been quite the gourmand, relocated there shortly after Grandpa’s funeral. I like to think that he mailed the recipe across the Pacific to Grandma to bring her a moment of joy amid her horrible grief. (Grandma blamed herself for Grandpa’s ill fate and sobbed and sobbed for months.) 

Photography by Belle Morizio

Now, I don’t know if tofu fa can cure a mourning grandmother’s heartache, but it has certainly soothed me in times of duress. As I gently break the delicate, trembling tofu with a spoon, it floats in the syrup, resembling flower petals. (“Fa” is Cantonese for flower.) But it doesn’t stay beautiful for long—I’m hungry, and I can’t resist the perfumed fragrance of ginger and sugar. It’s akin to soft panna cotta, the syrup coating each petal of supple tofu. 

Sometimes I cut corners: Store-bought silken tofu is fine in a pinch. But every once in a while, when I have time, I make my own. It’s easier than you think—instead of using the more traditional gypsum powder as a coagulant, I simply dissolve gelatin in warm soy milk and then refrigerate it overnight to set. 

Photography by Belle Morizio

The syrup is just as effortless; in fact, the trickiest part is tracking down Chinese rock sugar, which most Asian markets carry. (Absent English labeling, look for clear bags filled with large, irregular chunks.) Rock sugar is less sweet than granulated and doesn’t overwhelm the key flavors in the dish: the caramel notes from the brown sugar and the subtly pepperiness from the ginger.

Tofu fa is my antidote to the world’s spiraling chaos. Corny as it sounds, I like to think of it as a proverbial flower sent from Grandma, a reminder to savor life’s beauty, spoonful by spoonful.


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