Vegetarian Ma Po Tofu


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In my first months of blogging, way back in the middle of 2011, I posted one of my absolute favourite recipes, Ma Po Tofu, which is a Sichuan classic and is seriously addictive – if you like chilli that is. It is incredibly easy to cook and after a manic day it is the perfect pick-me-up-food that takes no time to prepare. Over the years however, I have found that I am increasingly making it without the pork mince element and keeping it to a more vegetarian dish by including simply tofu and fresh (or sometimes frozen) spinach.

Recently in Hong Kong I began to judge eating establishments on how well they could cook Ma Po Tofu and Dan Dan Noodles as I had a acquired a taste for both dishes.

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Tofu I know divides opinion, but I am definitely in the camp of someone who loves it. It wasn’t an immediate love affair, but one that has grown over time to the extent that I always have tofu in the house, ready and waiting for me to make a last minute Ma Po Tofu dish or my other favourite tofu dishes, roasted harlequin squash with tofu, kale and coriander in a miso curry paste, black pepper tofu and soba noodles with tofu, aubergine and mango. Seriously give them all a try – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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Tofu, or bean curd as it is also known, is hugely nutritious, versatile and a great vehicle for flavour. It’s rich in protein and low in fat, especially saturated fat. Yes, eaten on its own it is rather plain, but the point of tofu is to incorporate it with other flavours which it will help to enhance and lift. There are a myriad of different types of tofu, but the one I tend to use the most is ‘firm, silken tofu’ . I am going to be cooking some more tofu dishes over the course of this year, hoping that I may convert a few followers to the joys of tofu eating.

So here is what you need for the vegetarian version of the dish.

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Vegetarian Ma Po Tofu

Serves 2/3

349g silken tofu (or a similar amount)

2 large handfuls of fresh spinach

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 clove of garlic, finely chopped

2 spring onions, chopped

2 tbsp of chilli bean sauce (Lee Kum Kee’s I find works really well)

125ml of vegetable stock (fresh or a cube)

1 tsp shaoxing wine

1 tsp of soy sauce (light or dark)

2 tsp of sugar

1/4 tsp of sea salt

a good pinch of crushed Sichuan peppercorns

1/2 tsp of sesame oil

1. Cut the tofu into small (2cm) cubes and place to one side.

2. In a shallow pan heat the vegetable oil and then add the garlic and spring onions, stirring for around 30 seconds. Then add the chilli bean paste and mix into the garlic and spring onions.

3. After a minute add the chicken stock, shaoxing wine, soy sauce, sugar and salt and bring to the boil.

4. Add the spinach to the pan and gently fold into the hot sauce.

5. Once the spinach has begun to wither add the tofu and carefully spoon the sauce over the tofu, making sure not to break up the cubes. Leave to gently simmer for a couple of minutes.

6. Serve into a large bowl and sprinkle the Sichuan peppercorns and sesame oil and gently mix together.

Serve alongside small bowls of rice and hot cups of piping Jasmine/Chinese tea.

Perfect for this cold snowy weather.


Dan Dan Noodles and an alternative Christmas

Christmas this year is going to be somewhat different from our usual traditional Christmases in England, to put it mildly. I have always spent Christmas with my parents, siblings, their partners and my husband and daughters, enjoying good food, mulled wine, long walks in the woods and on the Downs, games (we especially like this one) where we all pretend we’re not that competitive (but we secretly are!), carols and general merrymaking.

This year, however, my husband (Mr B) and our daughters are spending the whole Christmas vacation in the Far East – well, Hong Kong to be exact. Whilst I wasn’t exactly jumping for joy initially at the thought of being away from all the traditional festivities and family in England over that period, I am now thinking of it as an adventure that I will throw myself into and try and embrace.  It won’t be the same as being in England and we won’t try to make it so, instead we’ll have an alternative Christmas that will be exciting in its own right.  There are certain traditions that I will seek out, even over there (I love a good carol), but in many respects it might be refreshing to have a change as a once off.

As bizarre as it might seem, as I have travelled a lot in Asia in the past, I have never been to Hong Kong, so am looking forward to exploring the region and hopefully getting under the skin of what makes Hong Kong tick. I am looking forward to trying the food in particular and somehow I need to adopt a Chinese local to show me the ropes on some of their local specialities. The food markets are also going to be a highlight so if any of you lovely people out there have any recommendations re the above then let me know. On the food front I far prefer low key local as opposed to an ostentatious, flashy restaurant where people prefer to be seen rather than enjoying the food itself – you know what I mean and I am sure you are in agreement! I will blog from Asia so watch this space from mid December.

High up on my Christmas wish list (I hope my family is reading this…..maybe wishful thinking!) is Fuchsia Dunlop‘s book ‘Every Grain of Rice – Simple Chinese Home Cooking’ . For those who don’t know, Fuchsia is a cook and food writer specialising in Chinese cuisine having lived, studied and travelled extensively in China. Back in July (15.7.12 to be exact) there was an article in ‘The Observer’ newspaper with Fuchsia’s recipe for Dan Dan Noodles. I tore it out and promised myself to cook this dish over the coming months. Dan Dan noodles, or Dan Dan Mian, as it is also known, is a real classic Sichuan dish that traditionally is served on street stalls by vendors who carry a long bamboo pole (dan dan) over their shoulders balancing baskets either end full of the soupy noodle dish. There are a multitude of recipes for this dish on the web, but I thought that I would sample Fuchsia’s recipe to begin with.

I can honestly say that this dish is off the charts delicious. Initially when I saw the ingredients I did a double take as I didn’t have them all in my pantry. My local Asian grocers also didn’t have some of the ingredients, in particular: sweet bean/fermented sauce, Chinkiang vinegar and Tianjin preserved vegetables, but this only made me even more determined than ever to get the ingredients necessary to make an authentic Dan Dan noodle dish. My saving grace came from discovering Wai Yee Hong, the online Chinese supermarket, based in Bristol, England. They had everything I needed and delivered the ingredients in a very efficient speedy manner. So if you are at a loss, order on line and the ingredients will be sent to you in a couple of days. Simple and hassle free.

Fuchsia’s recipe serves 2, but I felt it was easier to write it out for 1 person and then you can just double up as necessary depending on how many guests you are serving. I found it easier to make up individual sauces in each bowl and then add the noodles and mince, as opposed to making one bowl and then serving into guests bowls. Basically this way allows for you to alter the sauce slightly depending on personal preference (ie: I omitted the chilli oil when serving my daughters). It’s far more straightforward that it sounds and really takes no time to prepare.

Dan Dan Noodles

Adapted from Fushia Dunlop’s book Every Grain of Rice, whose recipe was printed in ‘The Observer’ 15.07.12. Her original recipe can be found here

Serves 1

(double/ triple/quadruple up according to numbers that you are feeding)

1 tbs vegetable oil

75g pork mince

1 tsp Shaoxing wine

1 tsp sweet bean sauce

1 tsp light soy sauce

100g dried Chinese wheat flour noodles – I use these

For the sauce

1 tsp light soy sauce

2 tsp of chilli oil (I use one that has flakes and shrimp in it), to taste

3 large heaped tsp Tianjin preserved vegetables

1 tsp Chinkiang vinegar

2 spring onion, finely sliced at an angle

300ml noodle cooking water stock (200ml if you are serving in smaller bowls or if you prefer it less soupy)

1. Add the cooking oil to a pan and stir fry the pork mince until it browns in colour.

2. Add the Shaoxing wine and stir into the mince, followed by the sweet bean sauce and soy sauce. Cook together for a few more minutes pressing the mince to the side of the pan with the back of a spoon so that it begins to clump together slightly.

3. In a serving bowl add all the ingredients for the sauce EXCEPT the noodle cooking water stock. If you cooking for others you can alter the quantities of the chilli oil depending on their love of chilli. For my daughters I omit the chilli oil and include all the other ingredients.

4. In a pan boil the noodles for the time it states on the packet – around 4 minutes. Stir them with chop sticks so as to separate them and prevent them from sticking. Noodles are similar to pasta in that you know they are done when the white centre has disappeared.

5. Drain the noodles, making sure to keep the noodle water to one side as this will become your stock. Run the noodles under cold water and drain off completely.

6. Place 300ml of noodle cooking water (or 200ml if you are using smaller bowls) into the serving bowl with the sauce and stir in together. Add the noodles and the mince on top. Give a good stir so that the ingredients are combined well and serve immediately.

The sauce quantities are very much a case of personal taste so if you prefer to add more chilli oil, Tianjin preserved vegetables, spring onions etc then go ahead and experiment to see what you like best. I do NOT add any salt to this dish as I find the soy sauce more than makes up for salt, however, Fushia does add a  1/4 tsp in her recipe so taste and see if you think it needs to be added.

A few other books on my Christmas wish list include:

Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Spice Trip: The Simple Way to Make Food Exciting by Stevie Parle and Emma Grazette

Asian Tofu by Andrea Nguyen

Burma: River of Flavors by Naomi Duguid

Are there any others that you think should be on it? I’d love to know of any you would recommend. Don’t be shy and leave a comment below.