Tag Archives: tofu

Crispy tofu cubes with sweet chili dipping sauce

When my vegan friend from the States came to visit last year, she was in awe of the selection of tofu/related vegetarian products at the supermarket. While soy products have generally remained a vegetarian’s food in the western world, they enjoy such widespread use in China, appreciated even by meat lovers, that you basically can’t have a supermarket or wet market without a dedicated tofu counter (except City Shop, for shame).

I’ve been cooking with tofu a fair bit in the two years I’ve been in Shanghai, but up until recently have kept to only a handful of familiar douzhipin (豆制品) — products made of soy/mung/other beans that, along with wheat gluten products, are usually displayed in the tofu counter(s). It’s a little embarrassing, actually, that I haven’t gotten to know them all yet, so I’ve resolved to buy them all and try them all at least once — ’cause, really, when or where else am I going to be this spoiled for choice again? Some of these products, like soft tofu and deep-fried tofu puffs, have long been known to and loved by me, while others are new and mysterious and will require some major baidu-ing.

Firm tofu

I’ll start this series with a familiar block of firm tofu. You can get this in a sealed, water-filled container or in a plastic baggy and priced by weight. I’m inclined to think the latter is more fresh, but with all the sneaky date relabelling practices these days, who really knows. Called laodoufu (老豆腐, literally old tofu) in Chinese, it is off-white, dense, and springy and (surprise!) firm to the touch. With a lower water content than soft or silken tofu, firm tofu will hold its shape in the pan and is thus a good choice for stir-fries, “steaks” and such.

I’ve incorporated diced firm tofu into veggie stir-fries before, but had never prepared it as a stand-alone dish. But the other day I stumbled upon a recipe calling for tofu to be coated in cornstarch before frying, and my life was forever changed.

You see, before, I’d always just put it directly on the pan and wondered why the edges never got crispy. No more! This stuff looked like cubes of chicken breast in the pan, then when I dished them out I started imagining they were pieces of crispy Cantonese roast pork (烧肉) (signs of a deranged vegetarian?). Dipping the cubes in Thai sweet chili sauce, Sean and I polished off the entire plate in a matter of minutes.



Pan-fried crispy tofu cubes
The cornstarch coating gives the tofu a crispy exterior without all the oil that goes into deep-frying. (They do start to lose their crisp more quickly than if deep-fried, however.) Great at absorbing surrounding flavours, these tofu cubes are delicious served with a sweet dipping sauce and make a healthy alternative to deep-fried meaty appetizers. Don’t skimp on the salt (unless for health reasons)!

1 block (extra-)firm tofu, approx. 12x12x8cm
2 tbsp cornstarch

1 tsp salt or to taste
1/2 tsp white pepper or to taste (optional)

1/4 cup Thai sweet chili sauce

1. Rinse tofu well and pat dry with clean paper towel. Cut tofu into 2cm cubes and pat dry again. Sprinkle 1/4 of cornstarch in bottom of large bowl and add one layer of tofu, then add rest of cornstarch and tofu alternately. Toss gently to coat without breaking up the tofu.
2. Heat 2 tbsp oil on a non-stick pan on medium-high heat. Add tofu cubes and spread as a single layer on pan. Let cook undisturbed for 5 minutes, or until bottoms of cubes are golden brown and have hardened into a crust.
3. Sprinkle salt and white pepper evenly on tofu, then flip onto other side using a spatula (use chopsticks to aid you). Some of the tofu pieces will be stuck together from the cornstarch, but that’s okay — just cut them lose with the spatula. Cook for another few minutes until bottoms are browned and crispy.
4. Toss tofu gently with the spatula so the other sides have a chance to cook briefly, then transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel.
5. Serve immediately with a bowl of Thai sweet chili sauce for dipping.

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Eating in, revisited

As much as I’m all for making my own meals as much as possible, I have to confess it’s been hard to stop myself from eating out while Sean’s been away these past two weeks: 8 out of my last 15 dinners were had outside the house. Granted, I had family visiting (though we did squeeze in a lunch at my apartment that weekend), but it’s still more than I’m used to, and more than I would like to average on a regular basis. They’ve all been nice social occasions, many of them were great food-wise, and I didn’t even pay for half of them, but a few have not been quite as friendly to the stomach/palate/wallet.

Last week, in an effort to get back on the health track after 5 straight days of dining out, I cooked five evening meals at home — and not just eggs on toast or instant noodles: whole, if simple, meals with fresh vegetables and eggs or tofu or beans. It felt great, especially knowing I wouldn’t have to fret about lunch the next day. One meal I shared with a coworker who came over for dinner and a DVD — I introduced her to spaghetti with fried eggs (with tomato, onion, and cucumber) and mashed sweet potatoes, and she loved it, if her second and third helpings were any indication.

What has been hard about living alone has been keeping the kitchen stocked with ingredients for dinner. Sean’s been our resident produce-shopper since I started my full-time job in March, and I’d come to take it for granted that I could come home, pull some things out of the fridge, whip up a meal — and enjoy some fruit afterwards, which I’ve really been missing — and not even have to wash my own dishes (yes, he’s a darling). Coming home from work on my bike, I’m rarely in the mood to stop and pick up food which I’d then have to cook.

Thank goodness, then, for City Shop, sitting conveniently in the basement of my office building. A lot of their food isn’t exactly wallet-friendly, but a few of their vegetables sell for just a tad more than their veggie market counterparts. After last night’s soulless veggie burger, I needed to reconnect with — to feel loved again by — my food. I hopped down to grab some tomatoes and cucumbers during my afternoon break, and with what I had already sitting in my fridge, spent half an hour creating a refreshing tri-topping rice plate packed with complementary textures and flavours (and nutrients!).

And there was love in every spoonful.

As with many things in life, simplicity is key to maintaining a habit of cooking by and for oneself. Tonight I wanted a bit of variety as I’d spent lunchtime dunking white rice in vegetable soup from City Shop, so I combined three very basic but tasty “dishes”:

Scrambled eggs with tomato and onion: Sauté half an onion (chopped) in olive oil til beginning to brown, add 1 tomato (chopped) and a bit of salt and sugar, cook until not watery and move to outer edges of pan. Whisk 2 eggs and pour into middle of pan. Let cook for a minute, then mix everything together until egg is fully cooked. Season with salt and pepper.

Rice-loving tofu: Sauté half an onion and a few cloves of garlic (chopped) in olive oil. Open a pack of soft tofu (~350g) and slice into bite-sized cubes before dumping into pan (I usually scoop the whole thing out with my spatula to maximize intactness). Let fry undisturbed for 2-3 minutes, then add oyster sauce (2 tbsp?) watered down with a bit of water. Sprinkle black sesame seeds on top.

Chopped tomato and cucumber (inspired by my lil sis): Wash thoroughly and dice 1 firm tomato and 2 small, peeled cucumbers. Put on a plate, drizzle with pure sesame oil and sprinkle with salt.

Scoop these over a plate of brown rice (holla at the dip tau fan) to feed two moderately hungry people (in my case, me and tomorrow’s me). If need be, increase number of eggs, throw some canned kidney beans in the “salad”, and/or make more rice. Be creative!



Eat-in V$ Eat-out: To figure out whether it’s as economical to eat in in Shanghai as I’ve claimed, I occasionally calculate how much I spend on a meal at home. Here’s the tally for today:

3/4 cup brown rice: 3 RMB
1 package soft tofu: 2.3 RMB
2 large tomatoes: 4.6 RMB
2 short cucumbers: 3 RMB
2 eggs: 2.4 RMB
1 onion & 4 cloves garlic: 2 RMB
oil & condiments: 1 RMB

= 18.3 RMB, for two meals.

9 RMB is pricier than a bowl of soup noodles delivered from Lanzhou Lamian downstairs, but 1 RMB cheaper than the home-style tofu on rice I would normally order from there. Factor in environmental costs (disposable containers become garbage) and health costs (swill oil, toxic food baggies), and the difference becomes a little clearer.

City Shop (Jing’an Branch)
1376 Nanjing West Rd., Shanghai Centre (basement)
南京西路1376号上海商城

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Noodletime

I recently realized that I haven’t used the rice cooker (to cook rice) in a long time. Weeks, probably more than a month. Which is a little eerie to me, given that I remember proclaiming at the dinner table just a few months ago that I can’t live without rice. I’ve always loved the stuff and eaten lots of it. Something changed, though, in recent weeks — maybe the decline of its appeal has something to do with the onset of warmer weather, or my resolve to up the ratio of (less tasty but more healthful) brown to white rice from 1:1 to 3:1, or even the fact that our rice cooker is scratched at the bottom, making for imperfect pots of rice and an annoying wash job. I guess I’ve also been moving away from Chinese-style stir-fries in my exploration of new foods and ways of preparing food, making other carbs more likely candidates at the dinner table.

Whatever the case, I think diversification is a good thing, especially in light of news of an impending drought-induced rice crop failure (even though wheat hasn’t exactly been safe from rising prices, either…). The knowledge that I’ll still have my fill of rice at the restaurant table makes me feel okay about continuing to neglect our unopened 2.5kg bag of organic brown rice. To this end, I made two “new” noodle dishes over the weekend, both of which turned out quite deliciously and make for light — but satisfying — summer fare.

Saturday — Penne with canned corn and chickpeas

This was born out of a last-minute realization that the crisper was empty (save for two mushy tomatoes) and our leftover pasta sauce moldy. Thankfully we’ve been pretty well-stocked with canned things, so the dish was pretty much a no-brainer. Garlic and olive oil could stand alone in a plate of pasta if there’s reeeally nothing else, but here I’ve thrown in corn, chickpeas, and the least mushy third of a tomato.

Turns out corn and chickpeas are a winning combo! The corn’s crunchy sweetness balanced wonderfully with the salty, soft nuttiness of the chickpeas, while the tomato and olive oil ensured sufficient moisture on the tongue. We had this with a side of mashed sweet potatoes, a healthier alternative to both regular mashed potatoes and sweet potato fries — and much quicker to whip up than the latter. We found the recipe here, along with other tempting sweet potato ideas I want to try.

Sunday — Soba noodles with black sesame paste

I picked up a fresh jar of black sesame paste at Carrefour on Sunday, and as I was randomly browsing food blogs and recipes in my afternoon idleness I found a way to incorporate it into dinner… with soba noodles!

The noodles were a bit annoying to cook, sticking to the bottom of the pot and turning very soapy, almost gooey… so once they were cooked I had to rinse them under cold water. Just googled “how to cook soba noodles” and it turns out rinsing under cold running water is a critical step -__- Also, having more water in the pot would’ve helped with the sticking.

I was dubious when I first realized how the dish was going to look — black and grainy and not very visually appealing. But the carrot sticks added some colour and crunch that made the whole thing a little more presentable and just… well, complete :)

I’d made nutty cold noodles a couple times last summer, but tasty as they were, I always felt a little sickened afterwards knowing how much Skippy peanut butter (and in turn hydrogenated veg oil) I’d consumed in one sitting. This is a lighter, more healthful alternative that I plan to make again and again… at least until the arrival of cold weather makes raw carrot the last thing I want to put in my body.




Penne with corn and chickpeas

200g penne pasta (or your favourite pasta)
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 can whole kernel corn, drained
1 tomato, diced
4-6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
Olive oil
Salt, pepper
Dried seasonings such as basil, oregano, rosemary, parsley (I use an “Italian seasoning” mix)
Crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook pasta according to package instructions, then drain and toss with a bit of olive oil to keep from sticking.
2. While the pasta is cooking, heat oil on a pan. Add garlic and chickpeas when oil is hot; fry for a few minutes until chickpeas become soft, then add corn and tomato.
3. Reduce heat to low and add cooked pasta to pan. Drizzle with more olive oil and season with salt, pepper, and your choice of herbs.

Serves 2.



Mashed sweet potatoes

For a sweet version, leave out the paprika and cumin and add some honey or maple syrup, and replace the salt with brown sugar.

2-4 sweet potatoes depending on size
1-2 tbsp butter
1 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp cumin

1. Wash, peel, and dice sweet potatoes.
2. Bring a pot of water to a boil, then add sweet potatoes. Cook until soft (5-8 minutes depending on size of pieces — pick one out with a fork to taste test), then drain.
3. In a large bowl, use the back of a spoon to mash the sweet potato along with butter, salt, paprika, and cumin.

Serves 2-4 as a side.



Soba noodles with black sesame paste

Thick black sesame paste is thinned out with soy sauce, vinegar, and a bit of water. Green pepper and tofu are thrown in for added nutrition and texture, but you can be creative with these additional ingredients (chopped up broccoli could also work well). Regular (white) sesame paste and thin Chinese wheat noodles are viable substitutes in this recipe.

1 package (~300g) dry soba noodles
2-4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 green pepper, sliced into thin strips
3 five-spice tofu squares, rinsed and sliced into thin strips
A few stalks of scallion/green onion, chopped up
Sesame oil

Sauce:
2 heaping tbsp black sesame paste
4 tbsp potable water (i.e. not tap, if you’re in China)
1 tsp vinegar
2 tsp sugar
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
1-2 tsp chili garlic sauce (optional)

Topping:
2 medium-sized carrots, peeled
1 cucumber, peeled (optional)

1. Bring large pot of water to a boil (do not skimp on the water). Put noodles in pot, return to a boil, and cook until soft. Drain and rinse vigorously with cold running water. (See here for detailed instructions!)
2. While the noodles are cooking, fry garlic in 2 tsp of oil (more if not using non-stick pan) on medium-low heat. Before the garlic browns, add green pepper and tofu and fry for another 3-5 minutes until hot through.
3. Mix sesame paste, vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and chili sauce in a bowl. Put the cooked noodles into the pan and coat evenly with sauce mixture. Toss with heat on low until noodles are hot through (especially important if you used Chinese tap water to rinse noodles). Add more sesame oil if noodles are sticking.
4. Cut carrot and cucumber into thin “matchsticks” ~8cm long; drizzle with a bit of soy sauce and sesame oil. Serve on top of the noodles with a sprinkling of scallion.

Serves 2.

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Easter brunch

Happy Easter! Today was supposed to be the end of our Lenten fast, the day we would be released once again into the world of omnivorism. But we’ve decided we’re not ready to head back yet. I guess you could say we’re still riding the high of our new gastronomic adventure; cooking and eating meatlessly is still interesting enough that we’re motivated to push on. So we’re giving ourselves another month, after which Sean is going to Ireland for two weeks and worries that familial/cultural pressures will make avoiding meat truly difficult. After his trip, we — or at least he — will know whether this resolve is sustainable for the long term.

So, instead of pigging out on bacon ham and sausage for Easter brunch, we had a satisfying meal of tofu-veggie-egg scramble and sweet potato fries with homemade aioli (garlic mayonnaise). Sean’s been frying sweet potatoes all week while I’ve been at work, so I wanted to get in on the fun too.

Since we don’t have an oven and I’m wasn’t into the idea of deep-frying our fries, I just pan-fried pre-blanched sweet potato strips with a bit more oil than I normally do.

In spite (or maybe because?!) of this, the fries didn’t really get crispy :( They were still delicious though, especially with the aioli, and when they were all gone we found ourselves craving more.

The scramble was great with some ketchup. Usually if I use a whole onion and a green pepper with four eggs the veggies get really overwhelming, but the tofu balanced the textures while giving the dish more substance.

The kind of tofu I used is called 五香豆腐干 (wuxiang doufu gan, spiced dried bean curd — though it doesn’t actually feel dry), which is much firmer and meatier than regular packaged “white” tofu (even the “firm” kind), and tastes faintly of five-spice powder. They go for around 2.7 RMB/three 5x5x2cm pieces, which is a decent amount for two people — though I could easily eat three squares of these in a meal!


Sweet potato fries (pan-fried)
3 sweet potatoes (white or orange)
1 tbsp paprika
1 tsp salt, or more as needed
2 tbsp olive oil

Optional:
1 tsp sugar
Ground red pepper/cayenne

1. Wash sweet potatoes thoroughly, scrubbing off any dirt. Peel and cut into strips 1-2cm wide. Throw into pot of boiling water and leave for about 3 minutes, or until half-cooked. Remove from heat and drain well.
2. Toss with paprika (and optional seasonings if used).
3. Heat oil in non-stick pan with heat on medium-high. Add potato strips and salt. Fry, tossing every 30 seconds until edges begin to turn dark brown (~10 mins). Add more oil as needed.
4. Serve hot with aioli (see recipe link below).

**This is not the best recipe if you want crispy fries. If you have an oven or are willing to deep-fry, I’d suggest those methods. I’m considering getting a small oven so I can make these all the time with half the oil!


Tofu-veggie-egg scramble

3 squares 五香豆腐干 (spiced dried bean curd) or other firm tofu, diced
1 small onion, diced
1 green pepper, diced
4 eggs
1 tbsp milk
1 tsp olive oil
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 tsp other seasonings e.g. sesame seeds, basil, chili powder (optional)

1. Heat oil in pan with heat on medium-high. Add onion, frying until slightly browned. Add green pepper and bean curd/tofu, cooking for another 3-5 minutes. Remove from pan.
2. Beat eggs with milk. Heat pan again and add eggs, stirring until fluffy and almost fully cooked. Then put tofu/veggie mixture back in, along with salt and pepper, mixing well.
3. Serve hot with ketchup and/or other seasonings.


Relevant resources:

  • The aioli recipe I used, plus a sprinkle of basil and dill (just ’cause) and less mayo/lemon juice for more garlic flavour
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