How I Learned to Love Tofu

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.

Category: Sichuan, Tofu, Vegetables | Tags: , , , , , , 25 comments »

25 Responses to “How I Learned to Love Tofu”

  1. Lizzie

    Woo hoo! Glad the kow choi worked out for you. Great pictures, as always.

    I would say that tofu does have a soybean flavour to it, though subtle. There’s a great dessert street food in Hong Kong called ‘dou fou fa’ – it’s a wibbly wobbly silkiest block of tofu in a sweet (sometimes ginger flavoured) syrup, served either hot or cold.

    I tried to convince the masses with a Tofu Tuesday on my blog but.. well… I life got in the way. I made fried tofu myself tonight and I couldn’t help munching on it as it was, dipped in a little soy sauce.

  2. shayma

    really, really delicious Helen, i love kow choi and i love tofu as well. the photos are beautiful, i like the perfect symmetry of the first one. sadly, you will probably hate the way i make tofu- i dont have it crispy- i actually saute garlic, add tofu (medium firm) and then pour over it, a sauce made w. dark soy, sherry, oyster sauce and a dollop or two of szechuan hot chili pepper bean paste. chopped scallions. done. w. glutinous jasmine white rice.

  3. Sharmila

    Love it. This looks lovely.

    I adore tofu, and forays into proper Chinese and Japanese food converted me. Agedashi tofu is gorgeous, though I’ve not made it at home.

    I also like picking up the ready fried tofu cubes in the Chinese supermarket (I can’t face the hassle of deep frying them myself) and making fish fragrant beancurd, or having them in Thai curry. They suck up the sauce so wonderfully.

  4. Su-Lin

    oh, fried tofu is divine! I used to love this deep fried crispy tofu with garlic and chilies…mmmmmm…. Love the idea of enhancing that crust with rice powder.

    And I’m with Lizzie – you’ve got to try tofufa, that dessert tofu. I’ve definitely seen it around…

    Oh, and deep fried tofu in curries and laksa where it acts like a sponge…..mmmmmmmm

  5. James

    Wow – you really don’t do things by halves do you!

    Last time I had some left over tofu (after making tofu choc tart – vegan style) I dunked it in left over pork marinade – soy, thai fish sauce, anchovy puree, oyster sauce, grain mustard, orange zest, dark brown sugar, sesame & veg oil. Marinade for a day and it’s great on the grill pan with crispy rice noodles bok choi, spinach or kale and some of the marinade heated up poured over.

  6. Maninas

    I love tofu, and am addicted to mao po tofu (and Dunlop) too. I recently ‘discovered’ silken tofu, which I adore for it’s -silken (unsuprisingly!) texture that simply flows down the tongue. I also think it has a bit of a flavour, very delicate. I tried it in this Korean egg and seafood stew, and fell in love with it completely.

  7. carmen

    gorgeous images as usual. i love tofu, especially ma po tofu. i also like pan frying it with soya bean sauce and a bit of soya sauce. kow choi is also a favourite of mine, stir fried with egg!

  8. Nora

    That looks fab – all crunchy and tasty. I’m not very experienced with tofu, though I did make some rather nice Maddhur Jaffrey veggie burgers with it. I think I always had the same impressions as you – a bit virtuous, a bit tasteless. But I think I’m ready to be converted, especially if you fry it! :D

  9. Sarah

    Apparently (I’ve never tried, I love it as is) you can freeze tofu, defrost and the texture will be firmer and more meaty.

  10. Jenny

    I’ve always wanted to know how to get tofu properly crispy.

    Usually I marinate it with a whole load of spices and whatever ginger/garlic/chillies are lying about. I tend to go the boring route of stir fries, but I had a really refreshing cold tofu salad the other day, so I should really try to be more versatile.

  11. Chris

    I love, too, love tofu, but it must be admitted that its a bit limited, as ingredients go. Really, it’s only good in chinese (and some japanese) contexts, with the only exception being if you freeze it, thaw it, wring it out and then use it to replace some or all of the mince in a shepherd’s pie or lasagne. So prepared it’s magic absorbent properties are the key to non-greasiness.

  12. nina

    I will have to give it another go, my firs experience with tofu was not pleasant at all…… I love the crispy outside of your tofu!!!

  13. Jonathan

    I usually just cover firm tofu in a mix of cornflour, lots of salt and szechaun pepper, and white pepper, then deep fry. After draining on kitchen towel, I cook again in the wok with loads of garlic, chilli, coriander, spring onions, chillis and soy. Kinda like how people make salt and pepper ribs.

  14. An American in London

    I agree with Sharmila on the love of agedashi tofu, and I’m a sucker for any dish that includes braised tofu. Well done on your crispy ground-rice tofu.

  15. ginandcrumpets

    You learned to love tofu by serving it with pork? Isn’t that cheating?

    I actually quite like it simmered in soup, all soft and wobbly – but there’s probably something wrong me. If it’s crispy, then nothing beats agadashi tofu. A rare example of tofu being moreish.

  16. Jonathan

    Great photos. Good to see the end result having observed you buying the ingredients in Brixton. Loved the Neil from the Young Ones reference. I think we should play classic BBC comedy bingo with our blog posts. I’ll see if I can squeeze Del Boy into my next post.

  17. LexEat

    the ground rice tweet explained!
    although surprised to see the heading “how i learned to love tofu” on your blog, the photos looked gorgeous!

  18. Sarah, Maison Cupcake

    I’ve always liked tofu anyway but this looks amazing.

  19. Helen

    Lizzie – Yes well perhaps I should have written that it does have a very subtle taste. I will venture further into the land of slippery tofu.

    Shayma – No not at all! It sounds lovely. I don’t eat tofu crispy all the time. It isn’t crispy in ma po tofu for example.

    Sharmila – Yes I saw those and wondered if they were worth buying! I shall give them a go. Oh those little flavour sponges. I also love agedashi tofu but I don’t know anything about making it at home either.

    Su-Lin – I will seek it out!

    James – Thanks for your suggestion. And no, I don’t do things by halves!

    Maninas – I am in love with Dunlop too. You must tell me more about the stew – it sounds amazing.

    Carmen – LOVE the idea of stir frying the kow choi with egg. I will be trying it – thanks.

    Nora – If in doubt, fry it.

    Sarah – Ah yes I read that too when I was researching my recipe. I will try it. I do love it when nice and firm.

    Jenny – Yeah it’s so versatile I just don’t know where to go next. I can’t believe I turned my nose up for so long. I think stir fried dishes can be interesting, it’s just that a lot of them aren’t.

    Chris – Yeah I agree. It needs those strong flavours. I wouldn’t want it prepared with anything tamer.

    Nina – Mine neither! You must try it again. Seriously. I’ve had numerous bad tofu experiences and I realise they are enough to put you off for life.

    Jonathan – I am loving your technique. Twice cooked sounds like a plan to me. I will give your method a go – thanks.

    An American in London – Thank you! I think braised is next on my list.

    ginandcrumpets – well you know, the pork was in the side dish…

    I do love it wobbly as well – as in the ma po. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing wrong with you. Fairly sure anyway…

    Jonathan – Thank you for the best idea I’ve heard all week. I expect to read that Del Boy reference in your next post. We can then move on to Fawlty Towers. I’ll be slipping Basil in by the end of next week.

    LexEat – I know – me too. It’s something I never thought I’d write. For a start, it doesn’t contain the word ‘pork’

    Sarah – Thank you! Maybe you could learn to love it too? Or perhaps you are not inclined to try. In any case, thank you for the compliment.

  20. Helen

    Oops – sorry Sarah you said you’ve always liked it, not the other way around. It’s Friday – I am partially braindead.

  21. joey

    I’ve always loved tofu as it’s used a lot here in Asia…some of my local favorites are “tokwa’t baboy” which is firm tofu fried until the ousides are crisp and served in a vinegary/soy sauce with tender morsels of pork, and “taho” which is silken tofu steamed and served with a dark syrup and tapioca balls :)

  22. Anupama Krishnamurthy

    This tofu dish looks so great! I am not a tofu lover but I would love to become one. The Chinese and Thai restaurants have so many tofu-based dishes. I am going to give your recipe a try. Wonderful blog!

    BTW, thanks for dropping by my blog. I’ve replied to your comment.


  23. Bron

    Yum – and your greens sound great too.

    I have an old coffee grinder that is great for grinding toasted rice, peppercorns, dried chillies, and all manner of toasted spices. Got it from my OH’s parents but think you can pick them up cheap on ebay.


  24. Maninas

    I’d love to tell you a bit more about the Korean stew, but I don’t have the recipe for it… I had it in a Korean restaurant in Edinburgh, called Shilla, which I warmly recommend. Now I’m on a mission to find the recipe, and will let you know when I do!

  25. Helen

    Joey – Well both of those sound incredible! Oh to be at the start of a beautiful journey…

    Anupama – Thank you! And thanks for your response to my comment. I remember it was a question about paratha making. I’ll check out your answer now.

    Bron – Oh how I long for a grinder. The stuff in a bag doesn’t have that same toasty flavour. I see an e-bay visit coming on…

    Maninas – Oh please do! I would dearly love to try it.

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