The idea of tofu used to make me shudder. The mere mention of the word and I would turn my nose up and scoff something about it being a tasteless meat substitute eaten only by extreme hippy types like Neil from The Young Ones.
That was until I discovered ‘proper’ Chinese food – Sichuan food in particular. Ma Po Tofu was where I turned the corner. Tofu doesn’t actually taste of anything; on its own it is purely a texture, which is why the strong flavours of Sichuan cookery suit it so well. In the ma po, wobbly cubes are cooked with pork or beef mince, funky fermented black beans and numbing Sichuan pepper. I let the tofu into my life from the moment I tasted it.
From there of course I wanted more and started thinking about the best way to get it. If there’s one thing a healthy food needs, it’s fat; frying seemed like the obvious answer. I wanted a crisp, spicy coating and at first tried to achieve it using panko crumbs left over from my mac ‘n cheese but they didn’t stick particularly well and the crust turned out patchy.
It was then I remembered reading somewhere that toasted ground rice would create the crunch I was looking for, with a nutty flavour to boot. A handful of uncooked basmati tinkled into a dry pan and toasted before I pounded and pounded and pounded it for a good 15 minutes before giving in and handing it to my boyfriend. Here’s the thing: making your own ground rice in a pestle and mortar is seriously hard graft. The next day I found a bag of it in Khan’s Bargain Ltd. in Peckham – 59p. You live and learn.
It did meet expectations though; mixed with equal amounts of coarse salt, ground pepper and dried chillies, the tofu cubes are transformed into super savoury bites with a rather erm, ‘meaty’ quality.
Of course, crispy tofu, as good as it may be, does not a complete meal make. I plonked it on top of steaming rice and served it with stir fried kow choi – an oniony/chivey tasting vegetable picked up on a whim in Brixton, mixed with minced pork (recurring theme?), cabbagey Sichuan preserved vegetable and chilli bean sauce. I basically cooked it with the flavours of dry fried beans. It is now ranking high amongst my favourite vegetables. I’m an allium whore.
Tofu is a blank canvas. This is something I always knew but never accepted. It can be an ingredient in the most mundane stir fry recipe from the back of a Cauldron packet, or it can be celebrated, injected with flavours, treated with a little respect. By this I mean you have to season it right and then also remember to show it a little love in the prep stage – you can read that below.
So now of course I want to know what you’ve got up your sleeve. What’s your favourite way to cook/eat tofu?
Crisp and Spicy Tofu
1 block of extra firm tofu
2 tbsp ground rice
2tbsp coarse sea salt
1.5 tbsp ground black pepper
2 tbsp ground dried chillies
Groundnut oil, for frying
Here’s the important ‘showing it some love bit’ – line a plate with a double layer of kitchen paper and then put the tofu on top before covering with another double layer and then resting a plate or two on top. Leave it for 15 minutes. The idea is to draw out a lot of the moisture. That’s it!
Mix all the coating ingredients together. Cut the tofu into cubes and toss them in the coating mixture. Heat a 1 cm depth of oil in a heavy based pan and fry the tofu pieces until golden brown and crisp on all sides. You could of course deep fry it, but that is a bridge too far for me, quite frankly.
Kow Choi with Minced Pork
Heat 1 tbsp ground nut oil in a pan and fry 2 cloves chopped garlic, a 1 inch piece grated ginger, 1 heaped tbsp Sichuan preserved vegetable (rinsed and chopped) and 5 whole red chillies (halve them if you want it hotter) for 1 minute until fragrant. Add 1/2-1tbsp chilli bean sauce and a generous pinch of sugar, stir briefly, then add 250g kow choi (cut into inch long sections). Stir fry until wilted. Season with salt. Add a few drops of sesame oil to serve.