There is a photograph in Jill Dupleix’s Old Food that I love; a teetering, artfully balanced tower of deep, very plain white bowls, the uppermost cradling large squares of tofu dressed with a glistening sauce of minced pork. The dish is Ma Po Tofu, a Sichuanese peasant favourite. Minced pork seems to be the favoured flesh to top the spicy tofu in most recipes I’ve trawled through, but, according to Fucshia Dunlop, a woman who most definitely knows, beef is traditional.
Like many things, it lends itself well to a vegetarian approach. Dunlop says, ‘Vegetarians may omit the meat altogether and still enjoy the dish’, but I’m ever-doubtful of such claims. The richness of the sauce – the ‘meatiness’ if you will - is a huge part of Ma Po Tofu’s charm. To omit that very particular texture would be to simply serve a nameless spicy braise of tofu. Instead, I went to Bittman who crumbles tempeh then fries it until crisp and golden. A brilliant substitute for flesh. This is simple, quick and the perfect mid-week meal.
Here, the soybean features in five of its diverse incarnations: tempeh, tofu, fermented black beans, soy sauce and miso paste.
This is really, really good.
So really, really good that I am salivating as I type.
Ma Po Tofu – feeds 3-4
A vegan version thereof. Based on recipes by Mark Bittman and the divine Fucshia Dunlop. Have your rice cooked before you begin as things here happen quickly. One of those dishes that’s far easier if you have everything lined up, ready to go, in small dishes by the stove. I love a recipe that utilizes spring onion greens rather than the so-oft-called-for-to-be-almost-irritating whites. Save them for something else.
Rice, cooked to your liking, to serve
Canola or peanut oil
125g (4oz) of tempeh
2 tablespoons of finely chopped garlic
2 tablespoons of finely grated ginger
1 teaspoon of fermented black beans, rinsed
½ teaspoon (or more) of sambal olek
Greens from 1 large bunch of spring onions, sliced
¾ cup of water
1 heaped teaspoon of shiro (white) miso
500g (1 lb) of silken tofu, sliced into 1 cm (½ in) cubes
1-2 teaspoons of brown sugar
2-3 tablespoons of soy sauce
Pour 1 tablespoon of oil in a heavy-based frying pan and set it over a medium-high heat. Crumble tempeh with your fingers. When the oil is hot add the tempeh. Cook, standing back – the tempeh will spit angrily all over your stovetop (and you) so adjust the heat accordingly. Stir frequently, scraping up any bits that stick to the pan, for 10 minutes. All should be crisp and a deep shade of golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper/a clean tea towel and set aside.
Add another tablespoon of oil to the same frying pan, turning the heat down to medium-low. Add the garlic, ginger, fermented black beans and sambal olek. Fry with care for 30 seconds. Don’t let that garlic burn. Toss in the spring onion greens, stir, then add the water, miso and tofu. Cook gently for a few minutes, until the tofu is just cooked.
Add the tempeh to the pan, followed by the sugar and soy sauce, to taste. Serve over rice and eat while piping hot.