Though I’m all for eating less meat, and though I’m passionate about legumes, tofu and I only intermittently get along. I'm not against it. I mostly just shrug. There are only a handful of preparations I really crave. Among them is ma po tofu, the Sichuan amalgam of mouth numbing chili oil and delicate soy cubes and (typically) a bit of ground pork. But I've never made it at home. Though I’m pretty comfortable with basic Japanese techniques, with Chinese food you can count me as a fan, rather than home cook.
So I was very excited to see that in her new cookbook, Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food, out January 19, local writer Hsiao-Ching Chou has a recipe for meatless ma po tofu. It’s simple—12 ingredients, four steps—so I gave it a whirl, and it turned out quite good.
That spirit, giving it a whirl, animates the whole book. “I remain firm in my belief that everyday cooking should be accessible and forgiving,” Chou writes in her introduction. To that end, she presents the recipes as a “way” with vegetables, “an approach rather than rigid rules.” Hot wok, oil, greens, soy sauce—this is a way. I took this to heart, since it’s how I already cook. When I made “Simple Stir-Fried Noodles,” I skipped the bok choy and went with mung bean sprouts and chilis. When I made gai lan with oyster mushrooms, I had no gai lan. Snap peas were wonderful though.
If you stock a decent pantry, riffing on the basic recipes here is easy and fun. The book opens with a guide to shelf stable ingredients: bean sauce, bean thread, dried wood ear mushrooms. Then another to common produce. There’s "An Ode to Soy Sauce," explaining how the condiment is as varied as anything else—wine, beer, potato chips—and Chou and a sommelier friend taste test 10 and offer notes on aroma and flavor. Kikkoman is “salt-forward, lightly toasted, lacks complexity” and smells like “caramel, dried herbs, cardboard.” Others show brine, sassafras, and cinnamon. Soon it’s on to the 85 recipes, divided into nine categories: dumplings, dim sum and small bites, soups and braises, stir-fries, steamed dishes, rice and noodles, tofu, eggs, and salads and pickles. For cooks not versed in Chinese cooking, individual recipes range from familiar (fried brown rice with oyster mushrooms and greens) to less so (winter melon with smoked salt), with many in between, like kung pao tofu puffs.
It’s reasonably strange that there aren’t more vegetarian or vegan cookbooks focused on Chinese cooking (most of the recipes here are vegan, or easily adapted to it, other than the section of egg dishes). A cursory search of Amazon’s cookbooks shows only a couple recent examples: The Chinese Vegan Kitchen and Wok Wisely. Yet as Chou notes, plant-based cooking has a long history in China, owing to Buddhist monks and nuns (vegans who also nix booze and alliums). As such, “being vegetarian in the Chinese culture is not perceived as a character flaw,” she writes. Tofu originated in China. So did seitan. The pleasure, then, is that you avoid many of the bullshitty substitutions that plague plant-based cookery. You get to treat tofu as tofu, and not pretend it’s an egg or lunch meat or a turkey.
Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food Book Launch
Jan 26, The Book Larder (virtual), 5pm, Free
Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food Cooking Class
Feb 2, PCC Community Markets (virtual), 5pm, $30
Lunar New Year Event with Hsiao-Ching Chou
Feb 13, Wing Luke Museum, TBD