I’m aiming to go meat-free for at least half the week. I’ve given tofu a go, but it’s so bland – how do you make it actually taste of anything?
Much like pasta and white rice, which are equally flavourless when served plain, tofu is more a vehicle for other flavours than a taste sensation in its own right. For those on a plant-based diet, though, it’s an invaluable source of protein, and rich in calcium and iron, among other minerals, so it’s worth adding to your repertoire. It’s also hugely versatile, especially in terms of texture: depending on how it’s prepared and cooked, tofu can be soft and silky or crisp and chewy.
Feast columnist Meera Sodha loves the stuff – see this week’s recipe for her latest bean curd bulletin – and argues that it’s precisely tofu’s blandness that makes this staple of the Chinese and south-east Asian kitchen so appealing. “Tofu is basically a blank canvas,” she says, “which means you can throw all sorts of bold flavours at it.”
One of her favourite approaches is to fry it hard, until browned and crisp on the outside and soft and giving within. “The secret is to drain it well, then cut into cubes, wrap in kitchen towel to dry further, then dust in cornflour and stir-fry in a very hot wok.” Use the result in Asian-style noodle broths – it’s brilliant in a vegetarian laksa – or Sodha’s street food favourite, chilli tofu, in which the crisp cubes are stirred into a garlicky, gingery tomato sauce spiked with chillies, soy and sugar, for a spicy, sweet-sour treat. “I’m addicted,” she admits, and we can see why.
Perhaps the simplest solution, however, is one of Team Feast’s go-to quick midweek meals, a cheat’s vegetarian mapo tofu that’s the polar opposite of bland and based very loosely on Fuchsia Dunlop’s 2012 recipe. This easy Sichuan stir-fry, which is often made with pork or beef mince, takes minutes to prep and cook, and packs a proper punch. To serve two, fry a diced aubergine (and/or meaty mushrooms) in groundnut oil until nicely browned and crisp at the edges, then lift out with a slotted spoon, and drain. Add a splodge of chilli bean paste (Lee Kum Kee does a decent one; in all good supermarkets) to the hot oil, fry until fragrant, then add a tablespoon of drained and chopped fermented black beans, a thumb of grated ginger and two cloves of finely chopped garlic, and stir-fry for a minute or two; sliced leek greens wouldn’t go amiss, either. Add 100ml vegetable stock (a few rehydrated dried mushrooms in the base give extra oomph), leave to bubble for a few minutes, then stir in a teaspoon of cornflour mixed with a little water, to thicken. Now add 250g tofu, drained and cut into 1cm cubes, return the aubergine to the pan, and toss to coat and heat through. Serve topped with sliced spring onion, chopped coriander, a smattering of crushed Sichuan peppercorns, a drizzle of chilli oil and a big bowl of rice. You can thank us later.