A Guide To Furu (Fermented Bean Curd)

A versatile flavor enhancer in marinades, braises, and dressings.

Overhead view of furu on a fork
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

The first time I tried furu in earnest, I was working as a volunteer at a hostel in a remote village in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui. The proprietor pulled out a jar of home-cured fermented bean curd during staff breakfast and dared me to try some. He plopped a soft, thimble-sized cube of tofu on my plate and instructed me to smear it on top of a plain steamed bun. “Just take a little bit,” he said. “It’s really strong.” 

Pungent, creamy and salty, like a very soft brie, the furu was a sudden punch of flavor that took me by surprise, almost like biting into a spoonful of miso straight from the jar. But soon, the sweet and almost milky notes began to kick in and I found myself taking a little bit more. Pretty soon, I was eating furu for breakfast every day and it continues to be my go-to morning staple in Taiwan where I now live—something that I liberally smear on steamed bread like butter on toast. 

What Is Furu?

In Mandarin Chinese, the word furu 腐乳 is the combination of two characters:fu 腐, which is shorthand for tofu, and ru 乳, which means cream. “Furu is like cream cheese,” says Pao-Yu Liu, a London-based, Taiwan-born fermenter who runs workshops on how to make furu. “Cream cheese is fermented dairy. Furu is fermented tofu.” 

The process starts by inoculating small bite-sized cubes of tofu with mold, which triggers an enzymatic process that breaks down the tofu until it is soft, seasoned, and creamy. “The enzymes in the mold help break down the tofu into all these different flavors and change the texture a lot. Tofu has a bouncy, juicy texture and then after fermentation it becomes super creamy,”  says Mara Jane King, co-founder of Ozuké, a fermented foods business that distributes throughout the United States, and author of a forthcoming book on Chinese fermentation. 

View into a bottle of furu
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

A shelf stable pantry item found throughout East and Southeast Asia, furu can be made in a number of different ways. In China, wild mold spores in the air latch onto the small, firm cubes of tofu as it sits out. They are then left in a warm and dark place—at around 85°F (30°C)—for a few days, at which point white fuzzy hairs begin to envelop them. The hairs are wiped off and the tofu is submerged in a salted and seasoned brine for months, which is when the second fermentation takes place. “The enzymes will break down the protein into amino acids, starch into sugar, and fat into fatty acids,” says Liu.

This basic process is more or less the same across regions, though there are some variations. In Japan, where furu is called tofuyo, koji, the same mold used to make soy sauce, is used instead of the airborne mold relied on in much of China. And in Taiwan, the first fermentation is often bypassed altogether and instead salted and sun-dried cubes of tofu are submerged in rice wine with red yeast or rice koji, which breaks down everything in one go. 

In terms of the seasoning added to the brine, there are countless variants out there. I’m partial to chile powder–flavored furu, which is quite common in Southwestern China and has a spicy kick. Taiwanese furu tends to lean a bit sweeter, and the brine is often flavored with chunks of pineapple or other fruits for a subtle hit of acidity. In Japan and parts of southeastern China, furu is spiced with a generous amount of red yeast rice (the same kind often used in Taiwan's version), which gives it a unique tanginess and a vivid bright red hue. 

How To Buy Fermented Tofu

Unless you are an experienced fermenter like Liu and King, making furu at home isn’t the most practical thing to do, since sourcing koji can be difficult and working with wild spores should be done with caution and under the careful guidance of experts. Thankfully, furu is accessible at almost all Chinese and Taiwanese grocery stores around the world, often sold in tiny jars in the pickle section. It’s also easily found online under the label “fermented bean curd ” or “Chinese cheese.”

A view of furu on the self of a Chinese grocery store
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Furu comes in all sorts of flavors so read the labels carefully. If it’s seasoned with chile powder, it will be on the spicy side. If it’s bright racecar red, it’s been fermented with red yeast rice and will be sweeter. They all have the same base flavor, though, and can be used interchangeably in recipes. 

An important disclaimer: Furu is not the same thing as stinky tofu. Stinky tofu is made by submerging fresh tofu in an aged brine for a couple of days; the tofu itself is not actually fermented. Furu, on the other hand, is actually fermented tofu and does not have the same odor as stinky tofu. 

How To Store It

Furu is sold in jars and is a shelf-stable item usually found in a market's unrefrigerated section, but as with many shelf-stable packaged products, it’s vulnerable to cross contamination once it’s opened for the first time. For that reason, even though furu does not spoil easily and can technically be good for years, the best thing to do is to refrigerate it after opening and eat it within three months.  

How To Use It 

Unlike cream cheese, which can be slathered generously on bagels and bread, furu is quite salty, with an intensity more akin to anchovies or fish sauce, and has to be used sparingly. Its flavor is delicious, but extremely potent and so must be used with balance and moderation.

The most simple way to use furu is to smear a tiny bit of it on plain, steamed bread, or add it to rice congee for flavor. In Southern China, a small hit of furu is often used in a quick vegetable stir-fry—usually mixed with rice wine and garlic to add flavor to crunchy sprigs of water spinach. 

Taiwanese popcorn chicken
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

The possibilities, though, are endless. When I was in China filming a video about Shanghainese cuisine, one of my sources added it to a marinade for drunken shrimp, and it was an epiphany. He took raw, fresh shrimp and dunked it in a concoction of aged Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, sugar, and red yeast–flavored furu. Sweet, salty, and incredibly umami, the dish was like a Chinese-style ceviche and to this day—many years later— I still think about it and salivate. 

According to King, it's a versatile flavor enhancer in marinades and braises. That's something I've seen In Taiwan, where furu is commonly used as a marinade for bite-sized chunks of fried chicken that's then tossed in a tasty concoction of white pepper and five-spice powder. This combination is quite popular at a lot of the late night beer restaurants and pairs marvelously with an ice-cold lager.

It also makes for a fantastic dressing. “I​​ love making salad with it,” says Liu. “I add a bit of vinegar, garlic, chile, and sesame oil.” 

Even though furu can be obtained quite easily around the world, what’s available for purchase in the Western world only skims the surface. Most furu in East Asia is homemade and utilizes the natural microorganisms in the air to inoculate the tofu. Like with artisanal cheese, every furu tastes a bit different depending on the terroir and who’s making it. Some versions have a deep, funky flavor, others are quite mild and slightly acidic. “Everyone makes it differently,” says Liu. 

There are endless possibilities in the realm of furu and if you get your hands on a jar, start with the advice my hostel host in China gave me: Just take a bit and smear it on steamed bread. For furu, a little goes a long way.

Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken With Furu (Fermented Bean Curd) Recipe

Fermented bean curd adds a creamy pop of flavor to deep-fried chicken.

Taiwanese fried chicken on a blue plate
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Taiwanese-style popcorn chicken is a delightful evening snack, usually sold in a paper bag and meant to be nibbled on as you saunter through the night markets of Taiwan. The bite-size chunks of thigh meat are juicy and tender, seasoned with a hit of soy sauce, white pepper, five-spice powder, and then deep-fried to order. 

The Taiwanese inclination towards deep-fried chicken came in the late 70s and 80s and coincided with the island’s adoration for American cuisine. In the previous decades, America had provided Taiwan with roughly a billion of dollars of economic aid and so there was a particular romanticism surrounding the benefactor’s food and culture.  

Out of this fondness arose a tidal wave of American-style concepts: Concession stands popped up around the island serving hamburgers for breakfast, and cheap aspirational steakhouses set up shop at night markets, slinging out stringy cuts of beef drenched in black pepper sauce with spaghetti on the side. Popcorn chicken was introduced to the masses as an approximation of American fried chicken, but flavored with familiar Taiwanese spices instead and occasionally tossed with glassy sheets of deep-fried emerald green Thai basil for extra flavor. 

Mise en place of ingredients for furu chicken
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

This particular twist on popcorn chicken is flavored with furu (fermented bean curd) and can be found at a lot of "rechao" restaurants in Taiwan—late night beer eateries with short stools and tables, where people gather after a long day of work with a cold, icy lager and hearty plates of food that come in quick succession. While this variation is not as well-known as its night market counterpart, which is made without furu, it is still a very popular option. 

I first stumbled across furu-marinated fried chicken at a rechao across from my apartment in Taipei, where the server recommended it as a house specialty. While I’ve had countless renditions of popcorn chicken in my life, this one was a revelation, the flavor of the furu creeping in as an aftertaste and giving each bite a sweet, complex finish. On its own, furu is quite funky, like anchovies or fish sauce, which is why it is almost always used in small quantities and combined with other ingredients as part of a marinade—its flavor is delicious but potent, and thus requires a balanced approach. In this recipe, I add a conservative dollop of furu to the chicken marinade, giving the fried morsels a creamy, underlying hit of umami.  

In the United States, furu chicken has largely been unknown, though that is starting to change. At the Brooklyn Taiwanese restaurant called Wen Wen, for example, it is the marquee dish. “I use furu as a salt source,” says Eric Sze, chef and owner of both Wen Wen and the Manhattan restaurant 886. On his menu at Wen Wen is a dish he cheekily calls “Whole BDSM Fried Chicken,” which is his take on the rechao-style furu chicken. Sze serves a whole, deboned bird slathered in a lovely concoction of furu and soy milk and then deep-fries it for good measure. “Furu is sort of like a substitute for soy sauce but it adds a completely different flavor,” he says. “It adds a bit of texture as well because it's thick. There’s just so much complexity to it.”  

Taiwanese popcorn chicken
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

A pantry item found in Taiwan, Japan, and all throughout China, furu is made out of fermented cubes of tofu immersed in salty brine. It has a similar texture to that of a ripe creamy brie. It’s sweet and salty; think of it like a very concentrated cube of miso or a spoonful of marmite where a little bit of it goes a very long way. Cottage-industry furu in Taiwan is often sold with chunks of pineapple in the brine, which adds a soft touch of acidity. In southwest China, it is usually seasoned with a healthy sprinkle of hot chile powder. The most common rendition found in Asian grocery stores in the States is furu with red yeast, which adds a lovely stroke of color and sweetness to the bean curd and works perfectly in this recipe. 

While furu is still a relatively obscure ingredient in the broad canon of Asian pantry items, it’s a shelf-stable item that can easily be found in the pickle section at most Chinese or Taiwanese grocery stores around the world and of course online.

In a medium bowl, combine chicken, fermented bean curd, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, garlic, sugar, white pepper, and five-spice powder, stirring well to massage the marinade into the chicken. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.

Overhead view of marinaded chicken in a glass bowl on a red counter
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

In a small bowl, thoroughly stir together all-purpose flour and baking powder, then add it to the marinated chicken, stirring well until chicken is evenly coated.

Two image collage of marinaded chicken before and after being coated with flour
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Fill a large, shallow bowl with sweet potato starch. Working in batches, add chicken to sweet potato starch and, using chopsticks, toss until fully coated. Transfer chicken, shaking off any excess starch, to a clean plate and repeat with remaining chicken.

Two Image Collage. Top Image: Mixing chicken in flour with chopsticks. Bottom: coated chicken on a wire rack
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

In a wok or Dutch oven, heat oil over high heat until it reaches 375°F (190°C). Using a spider-skimmer, carefully lower half of the chicken into the oil. The oil temperature should drop when you add the chicken; adjust the heat to maintain a frying temperature of 350°F (175°C). Deep-fry, stirring often, until the chicken is a light golden brown, about 3 minutes. Transfer the chicken to paper towels to drain and repeat with remaining chicken.

Two Image Collage. Top: Chicken being lowered into frying oil with a spider. Bottom: Chicken after being fried once resting on a wire rack
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Return oil to 375°F (190°C), then add half of the fried chicken back to oil and fry a second time, maintaining a temperature of 350°F (175°C), until chicken turns golden brown, about 2 minutes. Transfer chicken to fresh paper towels to drain and repeat with remaining chicken.

Two Image Collage. Top: Fried chicken being lowered back into frying oil. Bottom: Fried chicken resting on a wire rack
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

For the Seasoning: Transfer fried chicken while still hot to a large bowl and add the chile powder, white pepper, and salt. Cover the bowl with a large plate or lightweight cutting board and shake it thoroughly so the chicken is coated completely with the seasoning. Season with more salt, if desired. Serve right away.

Finished fried chicken
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

Wok; spider-skimmer

Notes

Thick sweet potato starch is coarser than the finely ground kind, helping to create the right kind of crunchy coating on this chicken; look for brands that specify between thick and thin sweet potato starch on the label to make sure you have the right type. If you can only find thin, just lightly spritz the starch with some water so that it clumps up and creates small beads.

Grace Young And Her Ever-Growing Wok Collection

Award-winning cookbook author and wok advocate Grace Young chats about some of her favorite woks and why she’ll never disclose how many she owns.

Grace Young posing with a wok
Serious Eats / Todd Coleman

Grace Young is one of the most prominent wok advocates in the English-speaking world. Her first cookbook, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, has been credited with introducing legions of non-Chinese cooks to the fundamental technique known as wok hei, the distinct flavor created with proper wok technique, which she so poetically translated as "the breath of the wok." Her subsequent cookbook, The Breath of a Wok, explored the technique further, and established her as an authority on woks, their use, and their upkeep, so much so that she has become a self-described wok therapist, offering guidance via email to nervous fans seasoning their woks for the first time. 

Portrait of Grace Young holding a stack of woks against a brick wall
Serious Eats / Todd Coleman

And yet, despite the fact that she is one of the foremost authorities on wok-cooking, Young recalls that she never once saw her parents use one at home. “We lived in a house that had an electric stove. A round-bottom wok would not have worked on it,” she says. Instead, she watched them cook on an American Farberware skillet and a Revere Ware pot.

For years, Young assumed her parents just never owned a wok. But a few months after her father passed away, her brother handed her a large paper bag. Inside was a gorgeous round-bottom, carbon steel, Cantonese-style wok with two metal ear handles. The wok had an incredibly thick patina. “It was my parents’ from when they cooked in 1949 through the mid-50s,” she says. “It was from when they had a gas stove.” 

Today, Young’s family wok is going to the Smithsonian as an artifact of Chinese-American history, and in many ways, its unusual story is a microcosm for how many in the Chinese diaspora stopped using the cooking tool but—through the efforts of people like Young—are slowly rediscovering its potential. “It’s a very important wok because it tells the sad story of how Chinese Americans have abandoned the wok,” she says.

Grace Young holding her book, the Breath of the Wok, in front of her face to the camera
Serious Eats / Todd Coleman

We wanted to get the scoop on Young’s wok collection, including whether we could crack open her tightly-held secret on how many woks she actually owns. I spoke to her about her love for the trusty cooking vessel, her impressive collection, and her efforts to combat anti-Asian hate and help struggling mom-and-pop businesses in Chinatowns across America through the #LoveAAPI campaign. We did the interview via Zoom, with her kitchen framed in the background, and I found it delightful how all throughout the conversation she kept pulling woks from out of the oven behind her, out of drawers, from under the table, and seemingly out of thin air.

Interview has been condensed and shortened for clarity. 

So…how many woks do you own?  

I’ve never disclosed [the number] to anybody because I have so many and I don’t want my husband to know. But I can tell you I have some in my kitchen cabinet here, in my kitchen oven, and I always have one on the surface. I have them under my desk. I have them in an upper cabinet in one of our rooms and under the bed—I have them stashed all over the place. 

Why did you start collecting woks?

When I see a wok that’s unique and beautiful, I just can’t resist. I basically sneak woks into the apartment. My husband always says, “What do you mean it's a wok? You don't need another wok.” I'm even lowering my voice because he's in the other room right now. I knew that this Newquist wok was coming recently and I was going to sneak it in. But it was such a huge box and my husband happened to be coming into the apartment and the mailman handed it to him. So he says to me, “What's this?” And I couldn't lie, so I'm like, “Well, it's another wok.” And he's like, “You know, you don't need another wok.” But when I opened the box my husband said, “Oh my God, that's stunning. That's like a work of art.”

I always joke that in my next lifetime, I’m going to collect chopsticks. 

What are some of your favorite woks? 

One of them is made by the Cen Brothers, who created the wok that’s on the cover of “Breath of a Wok.” They were wok artisans in Shanghai and one of the last people that we know of that were hand-pounding woks in Shanghai. I haven’t seasoned that one because I want to preserve the look of an unseasoned wok made by the Cen brothers.  

I also have a Newquist wok. It’s a hand-pounded wok by an American who lives in the Pacific Northwest. Do you see how the handles are really ornate? He was a blacksmith for many years. He made garden tools and carbon steel sauté pans and all kinds of different things, and then apparently he and his wife took a trip to Thailand and [got] really into Asian cooking. That inspired him to want to create a wok, but he was having trouble making it, and then he came across a copy of “The Breath of a Wok.” I don't know how he got it, but he said between the photographs that were in the book and my descriptions of what the Cen brothers did, he was able to figure out how to create the wok. 

Side by side images of a full view of a Newquist wok.and a detail shot of the handle
Serious Eats / Todd Coleman

Why don’t you season all of your woks?

The moment you season it, it’s really hard to see the hand-pounding. When it’s unseasoned, it’s much easier to appreciate the workmanship of the wok. 

Of your collection, which woks do you find yourself using the most?

I can’t use anything bigger than my 16-inch, round-bottomed, Cantonese-made cast iron wok since my residential stove doesn’t have enough power for a bigger wok—I can’t get it hot enough. And I don’t use my 12-inch pow wok, which is a northern Chinese wok (also known as the Peking pan) that’s also round-bottomed, because pow woks are too small. 

For an American stove, the most practical is a 14-inch, flat-bottomed carbon steel wok. I love carbon steel because it heats up quickly and distributes the heat up the sides of the wok. 

Cropped in gif of Grace Young cooking with a wok
Serious Eats / Todd Coleman

Is a high-powered commercial stove necessary to use most woks?

So many people get so focused on, “Oh the wok has to be super hot and I can't achieve the same heat that a restaurant stove can achieve.” But if you overheat the wok, it’s actually dangerous and you can create a situation where things catch on fire. 

The best way to judge whether or not the wok is hot enough is to heat it on high without any oil in it and then flick a drop of water. When the drop of water evaporates immediately, the wok is ready to go. Then you swirl in your oil. If the oil immediately starts smoking wildly, you’ve overheated the wok. You should take it off the heat, cover it until the smoke subsides, then pour out the oil, use a paper towel to remove all the excess oil, wash it, and start all over again. But if you add the oil and there’s just a whiff of smoke, that’s okay. Whatever your first ingredient is—if it’s ginger, if it’s garlic—there should be a sizzle sound. 

Most of the woks you own are made out of carbon steel. Why are you partial to this material? 

I think the fact that Chinese restaurants only use carbon steel woks tells you everything. Chinese restaurants never use stainless steel. They don’t use anodized aluminum. And they never use cast iron because Chinese cast iron is too fragile.

I live in Taiwan now and with the exception of my grandmother, very few people I know out here actually own a proper carbon-steel wok anymore. Most people are really into nonstick, and I’ve noticed the same thing with Asians in America as well. 

One thing that’s super, super depressing [is that] if you go to Chinatown, the majority of woks that you see being sold are nonstick, which are inferior for stir-frying. Asian-Americans are really into nonstick, and I feel as though that back in the '60s or '70s, Americans were totally seduced by nonstick cookware. I actually spoke to the owner of one big market in Chinatown and I was like “Why do you have so much nonstick?” And she’s like, “That’s what our customers demand.”

People don't realize it's a loss of culture. The wok has existed for 2000 years and [it’s] at a crossroads right now. 

Speaking of a loss of culture, you note that you never saw your parents use a wok at home. How did you learn how to season woks? 

The majority of the cookbooks that were written before mine all gave the same instructions, which was to scrub it, remove the factory coating, and dry it. Then everyone seemed to say, smear oil in the wok and heat it until it smokes. But when you use too much oil, it becomes this gummy, sticky, oily mess. I did it, thought I made a mistake, and then I kind of abandoned the wok. 

It wasn't until I was in my late 20s or 30s that I was in New York City's Chinatown and I saw this wok in a store called Hung Chong, which sold restaurant equipment. And so I bought this wok, and as I'm going out the door, I turn to the clerk and I say, “How do you season a wok?” And she says, “Oh, you just use Chinese chives.”

Grace Young walking through a store Chinatown
Serious Eats / Todd Coleman

And so I go to the vegetable vendor and before I even say anything, the vegetable vendor asks if I want Chinese chives. And I was like “How do you know I want Chinese chives?” And he said, “I see the handles of your wok.”

So it was like this inside Chinese secret as far as I was concerned. I came home, washed it, scrubbed it, dried it, and then stir-fried Chinese chives. And it worked. Then I started cooking with it and pretty soon I could fry an egg and it was just slipping and sliding.

What’s a moment in your wok career (good or bad) that you’ll never forget?

I was once on the Food Network and at the end of the show, the dishwasher came up to me and he said, “Your wok was very dirty.” He had scoured off all of the patina. He removed, at that point it must have been like 15 or 20 years [worth of patina]. 

Oh my goodness. I’m so sorry. 

I always tell that story to show people that when you start cooking with a wok—protect it. Don’t let your spouse or partner or best friend wash your wok. Just make it really clear to everyone that you’re taking care of your wok. I never leave my wok anywhere overnight when I travel; it will always come back to the hotel room with me. 

How do you even travel with a wok? Does TSA freak out? 

I always put it in my carry-on. I have a special carry-on that just fits the wok.

But I have to tell you that if you’ve never traveled with your wok, you have not truly experienced TSA. They’re putting on gloves and they’re unzipping the bag. They basically just treat me like I’m a criminal and tell me not to talk. Then they pull it out and they go, “Oh, it’s a wok,” and then everybody’s like smiling and laughing. One time this guy said to me, “What’s the secret to fried rice?” So yeah, it is pretty hilarious. 

My wok has gone to Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Bali. It’s been on cruise trips. It’s been to spas. (Spas love me because wok cooking is super healthy, so I’ve been invited to quite a few spas.) It’s logged a lot of miles. 

Grace Young showing a newly purchased Wok to the camera, in front of the store owner
Serious Eats / Todd Coleman

Other than traveling the country and spreading the word on woks, what else have you been focused on lately?

My objective right now is to try and help AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islanders] businesses throughout the United States because many are on the brink. It’s really important that people are reminded that they can make a difference and instead of just saying I’m against anti-Asian hate, that they actually support these little mom-and-pop businesses and show their love for the AAPI community. I’ve partnered with the James Beard Foundation and Poster House museum on the #LoveAAPI social media campaign, where you post a video or photo of your favorite AAPI restaurant, grocer, or shop with that hashtag, and tell us why you love it. These businesses need our support more than ever.

The NYPD just announced anti-Asian hate crime incidents are up 361% since last year. The FBI reports anti-Asian hate crime incidents increased 73% nationwide in 2020. The problem right now with anti-Asian hate is when you have a woman that’s pushed onto the subway tracks, it makes the AAPI community think twice about [going] out. It makes you definitely feel scared to be in Chinatown at night when it’s quiet and desolate. Restaurants, stores, and shops are suffering, which means that they’re at risk of closing. They’ve already had two years of hardships of mounting debt and rent, and most of them aren’t operating at what they were making pre-pandemic. So it means the end of a lot of stores and restaurants, and that’s how developers just zoom in, and we get a Chinatown that’s wiped out. It's really important that all of us do our part, and everyone can do a part really easily.

Taiwanese Deep-Fried Squid Balls

Homemade squid balls that you can literally bounce off the wall.

Three wood skewers with 4 squid balls each on a plate.
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

One of the most prized textures in Taiwanese cuisine is an elusive concept known as Q—which is pronounced exactly the same way in Mandarin Chinese as it is in English. Q is an adjective which is often mistranslated as "al dente." But Q doesn't just mean al dente; Q describes a meatball you can forcefully bounce on a table and have it hit you right back in the head. It describes a food that is both elastic and chewy, like warm tapioca pearls soaked in brown sugar, or springy, alkaline noodles. It’s more reminiscent of a gummy bear than a perfectly cooked strand of spaghetti. 

And while there are many dishes that meet this abstract, sought-after criteria, few things embody it better than Taiwan’s wide and diverse range of meatballs. In fact, some meatballs are so Q, you can literally play table tennis with them. Some Taiwanese researchers have even designed elaborate bouncing tests to quantify the elasticity of different fish balls.

There’s nothing fancy to it. All around the world, meatballs were traditionally just a way to make use of scraps and leftovers. In Taiwan in particular, catches of unsold fish and miscellaneous shellfish are pulverized together with starch to form a batter, shaped into balls, and cooked in barely simmering water to form the foundation of a beautiful meal. “Back then we just had too much fish,” Huang Shao-Wei, the second-generation owner of a Taiwanese cuttlefish ball company called Hong Yu tells me. “We are an island, after all.”

A hand holding a skewer of 4 squid balls.
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Unlike Western meatballs, which are often made by loosely packing together clumps of meat, Taiwanese meatballs have a tight, elastic structure. The boiled renditions are usually served in a clear pork broth soup with cubes of daikon and garnished with a light sprinkling of celery leaves. Deep-fried meatballs, meanwhile, are eaten as on-the-go snacks with a dash of white pepper. 

Every company has their own recipe, but there are some general rules they observe. 

For one, all meatballs have to be infused with a heap of fat. Fat is essential to keeping the balls juicy. Second: For balls made out of seafood, a bit of starch is mandatory to help increase the mixture's ability to retain water and give it improved structure, similar to how filling a balloon with additional water makes it feel tighter. Without the starch, the seafood ball will come out mushy and lack that essential Q. In Taiwan, the de facto starches are sweet potato and tapioca starch. I personally prefer the former because it produces a firmer texture, though the two are often used interchangeably or mixed together.

As with sausage-making, it's extremely important to partially freeze whatever meat you’re working with. Cold temperatures help the fish proteins bond properly and prevent the fat from smearing (i.e., melting prematurely), which can produce a mealy texture. I have tried making meat and seafood balls with both room temperature and frozen meat and the results are clear. The former made a really depressing meatball that had more of a spongy texture; it literally fell flat. But the latter gave me a ball I happily bounced off of my kitchen wall.

This recipe for squid balls is one I developed based on interviews with two cuttlefish-ball specialists in Taiwan; here I use squid, which is an easy substitute for cuttlefish. It is, fundamentally, just squid blended together with starch and fat. Unlike pork sausages, which should be cohesive and moist but not too rubbery, these balls are prized for their elastic texture—which is achieved by first grinding the mollusk so finely that it’s slimy.

“You have to boil it in water to keep the ball’s shape, and then deep-fry it afterwards,” advises Hsu Kuang-Yang, the owner of Dahan Seafood Company, another cuttlefish ball company in Taiwan.

Squid balls frying in a wok.
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

According to Huang, the mark of a great squid ball is one with a greater amount of squid than starch. “You can tell if it’s bad quality when it shrinks after you deep-fry it,” says Huang. “It means it has too much starch.” Huang also recommends folding in hand-minced chunks of squid at the very end to give it a bit of texture, and Hsu says to rest the pulverized meat for a couple hours to allow the starch to absorb more of the squid's liquid. Both use dense pork fatback as their fat of choice, but because pork fatback can be difficult to procure for the average home cook, I’ve substituted it with pork belly, which I find works just as well even with its higher amount of muscle relative to fatback. 

After the squid balls are shaped and boiled in water, they are double-fried in a wok and come out a gorgeous light golden brown. While you can fry the squid balls in any large, deep vessel, a wok is one of the best choices for deep frying, since its wide, flared sides contain splatter and mess, and its thin, usually carbon-steel walls, are responsive to changes in heat, making it easier to regulate the frying temperature.

“Once fried, the squid balls should be a bit crunchy,” says Huang. I personally like stringing them on a long skewer and seasoning them with a heavy-hand of white pepper, night market–style, but you’re welcome to enjoy them however you like.

Rinse the squid under running water, then pat dry with paper towels.

Cut-up squid balls on a paper towel
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Mince 1 ounce of the squid, transfer to an airtight container, and refrigerate.

Overhead view of cutting board with minced squid on it.
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

In a medium bowl, thoroughly mix the remaining squid with the pork, sugar, salt, and ground white pepper. Cover tightly and freeze until partially frozen, about 2 hours.

Two image collage. First photo is a metal bowl with squid, pork, and seasonings, unmixed. Second photo is bowl with all ingredients mixed
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

In a high-powered blender or food processor, combine the partially frozen pork and squid mixture with sweet potato starch and ice and process on high-speed, scraping down the sides as necessary, until it forms a smooth, sticky, shiny paste, about 3 minutes; it should be completely smooth with no visible lumps of squid or pork or shards of ice.

Overhead view into a food processor with squid and pork processed to a very smooth paste.
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Transfer the paste to a large bowl or container and stir in the refrigerated minced squid until evenly incorporated. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 or up to 8 hours.

Overhead view of processed squid mixture and minced squid in a bowl with a red spatula
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Bring a large pot of water to a simmer over medium-low heat until tiny bubbles begin to break on the surface of the water. Turn off the heat. Using wet (preferably latex-gloved) hands, grab a handful of the paste and squeeze it up through a hole formed by your index finger and thumb (like making the "okay" gesture) until a golf-ball size ball forms, then squeeze to pinch the ball off and release into the water; make sure to squeeze tightly when shaping the balls to minimize air pockets. Alternatively, using a wet spoon, scoop out golf-ball-size portions of the squid paste mixture and, using a second wet spoon, gently form into a rough ball shape before releasing into the water. When all the squid balls are in the water, turn the heat up to high and bring to a rolling boil, then lower the heat to maintain a brisk simmer and cook until balls are completely cooked through, about 5 minutes. Drain the squid balls in a colander and shake to dry. Transfer to a paper towel–lined plate and thoroughly pat dry with additional paper towels (it’s important to dry the squid balls as much as possible to avoid splattering when frying). Let air-dry for 15 minutes before frying.

Squid balls boiling in a pot
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

In a wok or Dutch oven, heat oil over high heat until it reaches 375°F (190°C). Using a spider-skimmer, carefully lower half of the squid balls into the oil. The oil temperature should drop when you add the squid balls; adjust the heat to maintain a frying temperature of 350°F (175°C). Deep-fry, stirring often and carefully breaking apart any balls that have stuck together, until balls are beige and slightly crisp around the edges, about 4 minutes; be careful, as squid balls can pop and spatter during frying. Transfer squid balls to paper towels to drain and repeat with remaining balls.

Squid balls being lowered into a wok full of oil
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Return oil to 375°F (190°C), then add half of the fried squid balls back to oil and fry a second time, maintaining a temperature of 350°F (175°C), until squid balls turn a light golden brown, about 2 minutes. Transfer squid balls to fresh paper towels to drain and repeat with remaining squid balls.

Fried squid balls in a spider being returned to hot oil in a wok for second frying.
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Season squid balls with ground white pepper and additional salt, if desired. Serve hot.

Close up image of finished squid balls on skewers.
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Special Equipment

Wok, high-powered blender or food processor, spider-skimmer

Make-Ahead and Storage

Deep-fried squid balls can be frozen in a freezer bag for up to 3 months. Reheat in an oven set at 400°F (200°C) or in a microwave.