I hate tofu. That’s been my knee-jerk response pretty much since tasting it the first time and every time I had it after. It wasn’t so much that it had no flavor—nothing really not to like about that; what’s not to like about nothing?—it was rather the lack of flavor combined with its curdy texture.
I remember talking with Michael Symon in his restaurant Lola in Cleveland when he was trying to come up with a vegetarian or vegan dish to put on the menu that used tofu.
I asked, “Why do you want to do that?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I hate tofu.” And that was that. No tofu on the Lola menu.
So when Andrea Nguyen, a cook and writer whom I met at the Greenbrier food writers' symposium and whom I admire for her intelligence and clean writing, told me she was doing an entire book on tofu, I thought she was crazy. She told me she was going to show me, as in, I’ll show you.
Well, she did—sent me not only the gorgeous book Asian Tofu, but also soybeans and coagulants to make my own tofu. This was a lot of fun and not much different from making basic cheeses like ricotta and mozzarella. You bring pureed soybeans to a simmer, add a coagulant and strain out the liquid, then press the curd.
She asked me to try one of her favorite recipes, spicy tofu with beef and Sichuan peppercorns—“the first tofu dish I fell in love with,” she writes in her book.
It’s a basic stir-fry, so once you have your mise en place set up, the dish comes together in minutes. It’s a deeply fragrant and pungent dish, because of the peppercorns. I used the optional pork rather than beef.
The dish was indeed excellent, but here is what’s important about it to me: I’d used a third of the meat I’d have used in a stir-fry without tofu, and yet the dish was every bit as satisfying to a meat-loving tofu-hater as if it had had 100% meat.
This is a big deal. Tofu is too easily linked exclusively to vegetarian and vegan cuisine, which unfairly pigeonholes the versatile protein. We live at a time when for both health and ecological reasons, we ought to rely less on meat, eat less of it. Tofu, it turns out, is a fabulous strategy for eating less meat without feeling the difference. And with the spicy sauce, it even tricked me into liking the tofu itself!
OK, Andrea, you did it. And I thank you.
Spicy Tofu with Beef and Sichuan Peppercorn
Ma Po Dou Fu
Serves 4 with 2 or 3 other dishes
This is the first tofu dish that I fell in love with. I was a teenager and my dad let me tag along to a Chinese restaurant lunch with him and his friend, Mr. Li. As the adults chatted, I quietly ate up most of this heady Sichuan specialty. The soft tofu and ground meat swimming in a velvety, spicy, unctuous sauce was addictively good. Later, as I was cooking my way through Chinese cookbooks, I realized that the memorable dish was called ma po dou fu. It was among the first Chinese recipes I mastered and is one I still regularly make today.
During my visit to Chengdu, I realized how elastic this classic can be. At traditional Sichuan restaurants, it’s numbingly hot with a layer of red oil floating on top. Zhong Yi’s aunts and uncle favored pork over beef and omitted the chile bean sauce, opting instead for a huge dose of tingly Sichuan peppercorn. When I queried Chef Yu Bo of Yu’s Family Kitchen about the key elements of ma po dou fu, he responded in his thunderous Sichuan voice, “Dou fu, niu rou, Pixian dou ban jiang!” (Tofu, beef, Pixian chile bean sauce!). To make his point, he took my friends and me to visit an artisanal sauce producer in Pixian. Below is my rendition, which provides lots of room for experimentation. Use whichever meat you like, though beef’s hearty flavor pairs well with the spicy rich sauce. Add fermented black beans for savory funk and chile flakes for heat.
- 14 to 16 ounces medium or medium-firm tofu
- 1 generous teaspoon Sichuan peppercorn
- 3 tablespoons canola oil
- 6 ounces ground beef or pork, fattier kind preferred, roughly chopped to loosen
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
- ½ teaspoon dried chile flakes, optional
- 1 tablespoon fermented black beans, optional
- 2 ½ to 3 tablespoons chile bean sauce, Pixian kind preferred
- 1 generous teaspoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons light (regular) soy sauce
- 2 large green onions, white and green parts, cut on the diagonal into pieces about 11/2 inches long
- 1 ½ tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 3 tablespoons water
- Cut the tofu into ½-inch cubes and put into a bowl. Bring a kettle of water to a rolling boil. Turn off the heat and when the boiling subsides, pour water over the tofu to cover. Set aside for 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, measure out 1 ⅓ cups of water (the stuff you just boiled is fine) and set aside near the stove. You’ll be using it later for the sauce.
- In a large wok or skillet, toast the peppercorn over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until richly fragrant and slightly darkened; you may see a wisp of smoke. Let it cool briefly, then pound with a mortar and pestle or grind in a spice grinder. Set aside.
- Drain the tofu in a strainer or colander and put it near the stove. As with all stir-fries, assemble your ingredients next to the stove.
- Heat the oil in the wok or skillet over high heat. Add the beef, stirring and mashing into small pieces until crumbly and cooked through, about 2 minutes. Add the ginger, chile flakes, fermented black beans, and chile sauce. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until the beef is a rich reddish-brown color and the chile sauce has turned the oil slightly red. Add the sugar and soy sauce, stir to combine, then add the tofu. Gently stir or give the wok a shake to combine without breaking up the tofu much.
- Pour in the 1 ⅓ cups water you set aside earlier. Bring to a vigorous simmer, and cook for about 3 minutes to allow the tofu to absorb the flavors of the sauce.
- Taste the sauce and add a pinch of salt or sugar, if needed. Add the green onion and stir to combine. Give the cornstarch one last stir, then pour enough into the wok to thicken the sauce. You may not need to use it all. In Sichuan, the sauce is more soupy than gravylike. Sprinkle in the ground peppercorn, give the mixture one last stir to incorporate, then transfer to a shallow bowl. Serve immediately with lots of hot rice.
Other links you may like:
- My recent post Staple Meal: Stir-Fry.
- Use tofu to make a vegetarian Pad Thai, a popular Thai noodle dish.
- Iron Chef Morimoto's restaurants in Philadelphia, NYC, and Napa.
- The Tofu Project connects leading entrepreneurs, innovators, and business leaders from Japan and the United States through curated events designed to bring Japanese creativity to a global scale.
- Andrea's other books: Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors and Asian Dumplings: Mastering Gyoza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More.
© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.