On the tofu trail: bean curd a versatile staple in Chinese recipes

Bean curd is a versatile ingredient, and good when braised, pan-fried, sautéed, fried or even raw. It comes with varying moisture content, giving it a texture that’s anywhere from very soft to very firm (there are also fresh and dried bean curd “skins”, fermented products and bean curd puffs, but we won’t get into those now). The followingrecipes call for firm bean curd.

Mapo tofu with beef tendon 

I saw a photo of this on my Instagram feed, and it looked so delicious I decided to make it. You need to start cooking the tendon far in advance because it takes a couple of hours (at least) to simmer into submission (or less time if you use a pressure cooker). The tendon needs to be very tender, because it won’t get any softer in the brief time you cook it with the sauce and bean curd.

I like this for the contrast in textures: the slippery, tender tendon and the firmer pieces of bean curd. If you dislike tendon, use a total of about 750 grams of bean curd.

250 grams beef tendon, cut into several pieces
15 grams fermented black beans
5 grams Sichuan peppercorns
30ml dark soy sauce
30ml light soy sauce
80 grams doubanjiang (Sichuan chilli soybean paste)
10 grams Chinese chilli flakes
20ml sesame oil
30ml chilli oil
400ml unsalted chicken stock, preferably home-made
20 grams cornstarch
450 grams firm bean curd
2-3 Chinese leeks, rinsed thoroughly
2-3 spring onions
Cooking oil, as needed
Fine sea salt

Bring a medium-sized pot of water to the boil, add the tendon and let the water boil again. Strain the tendon through a colander and rinse it thoroughly. Wash the pot, then fill it halfway with water and bring to the boil. Add the tendon, bring to the boil then lower the heat and simmer for about two hours, or until the tendon is very tender. (If you have a pressure cooker, blanch and rinse the tendon, then put it in the pot that is about half full of water. Cook on high pressure for about one hour, then remove from the heat and let the cooker cool naturally before opening the lid.) Cut the tendon into bite-sized pieces.

Briefly rinse the black beans in a small sieve, then put them in a bowl and add 15ml of warm water and leave to soak for about 15 minutes. Put the Sichuan peppercorns in a small, unoiled skillet placed over a medium flame. Cook, stirring frequently, until the peppercorns are toasted. Cool the peppercorns, then grind them to a rough powder in a mortar.

Heat a wok over a high flame, then add about 10ml of oil. When the oil is hot, add the doubanjiang and stir briefly. Mix in the black beans and the soaking liquid, Sichuan peppercorns and chilli flakes, then add the sesame oil, chilli oil and chicken stock. Stir well, then bring to the boil and taste the liquid; season with salt and more doubanjiang, chilli flakes and/or chilli oil, if needed. Mix in the beef tendon pieces and simmer for several minutes.

While the tendon is simmering, cut the bean curd into 2.5cm squares. Trim off and discard the root ends of the leeks, then slice them about 1cm thick, using the white and pale green parts only. Put the cornstarch into a bowl and mix in about 40ml of water. Cut the spring onions about 3mm thick.

Add the bean curd and leeks to the wok and stir them in. Simmer for a few minutes, or until the leeks start to soften. Taste again for seasoning and correct, if needed.

Stir the cornstarch and water together, then drizzle about half of this mixture into the ingredients in the wok. Mix well and check the consistency of the liquid in the wok – it should be a glossy sauce that very lightly coats the other ingredients. If needed, stir in a little more cornstarch/water. Ladle the mapo tofu into a serving bowl, sprinkle with spring onions, then serve with steamed white rice.

Pan-fried tofu with chilli-soy sauce

Pan-frying bean curd follows the same basic rules as when you pan-fry meats or seafood. There should be as little surface moisture as possible, so it browns better, and once it’s in the pan, you need to let the crust “set” before turning it over, or it will stick to the metal. My preferred pan is well-seasoned cast iron, but a non-stick skillet also works.

For the sauce, I like the Lee Kum Kee Guilin chilli paste, but use whatever type you prefer.

1 or 2 pieces (about 450 grams in total) firm bean curd
30ml soy sauce
5 grams sugar
10ml sesame oil
Chinese chilli paste, to taste
2 spring onions
Small handful of fresh coriander
Toasted sesame seeds
Cooking oil, as needed

If you’re using a cast iron pan, let it heat over a medium-high flame until very hot. Add about 20ml of oil and rub it in with paper towels; the pan should have a very thin layer of oil on the surface (add more, if needed).If using a non-stick pan, rub it thoroughly with oil before placing it over a medium flame to heat.

Slice the bean curd into pieces about 1cm thick. Lay them on a double layer of paper towels, cover with a double layer of paper towels and press on the surface gently to extract the excess moisture. If necessary, change the paper towels.

When the skillet is hot, place the pieces of bean curd in the pan. Leave the pieces undisturbed for a few minutes. Carefully slide a wide, flexible metal spatula (such as a fish slice) under one of the pieces. If it is sticking, leave it for about 30 more seconds, before checking again. When it’s ready, the bean curd should lift easily from the skillet and be pale brown on the bottom. Place all the pieces, seared side down, on a plate and re-oil the skillet. Put the bean curd, seared side up, back in the skillet and leave for several minutes. Again, the bean curd is ready when it lifts easily from the pan. Put the pieces on a serving plate.

While the bean curd is cooking, prepare the other ingredients. Finely mince the spring onions and roughly chop the fresh coriander. Mix the soy sauce with the sugar, stirring until it dissolves, then add the sesame oil and some chilli paste to taste.

Spoon the sauce over the bean curd on the serving plate. Scatter the spring onions, fresh coriander and sesame seeds over the bean curd, then serve immediately.

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