Ma Po Tofu: Revisiting A Chinese Classic


You don’t know how much I wanted to title this “Pock Marked Old Woman with a Drunken Sailor.” I could have got a whole new readership on that one title alone. Possibly not a readership whose comments I could publish. More the readership that clicks on ‘certain’ ads, for ‘certain’ products, shall we say.

So I resisted. The reason it was tempting was because, if you remember from awhile back, when I posted Cauliflower and Almond Pizza with Fresh Sauce and Greens, I mentioned this very translation. I did a whole post on odd-to-Western-ears translations, but Ma Po Tofu was my favourite, mainly because it is also my favourite Chinese dish.  Although disputed here in this very odd tale, the classic Sichuan recipe roughly translates as ‘pock marked old woman.’ So, joining in the spirit of poetic namings, I thought that the dry sherry and salmon could be the drunken sailor.  But then you probably wouldn’t want to try what to me is the best Chinese dish ever.  And trust me, you want to try it. Continue reading

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Crispy and Sticky Black Pepper Tofu

By now regular (and cherished) readers will have got the message that I am a) animal-mad, b) a bit of a nutrition geek, c) have a thing for tofu. I am also rather fond of big flavours – clashing, bold, in-your-face tastes and aromas. Maybe it’s because my eyesight is a bit poor, and my hearing isn’t too far behind, but I can’t be doing with too many bland or one-note foods.

Although I do graze from the fruit bowl and pick through the nut jar, I truly have a hard time sitting down and eating, say,  a banana – I want it sliced and sprinkled with cardamom. I must be a latent sensationalist, and instead of kite-surfing or gambling I find my thrills with food. But not in a quantitative, all-you-can-eat kind of way (well, not usually); for me it’s about the sensuous meeting of taste, smell, texture, sight and even touch. Think of how much nicer it is to eat corn from a cob, dripping with real butter, than to chase the kernels around your plate with a fork. Or appreciating the pop and sizzle of a stir-fry –  the hot smell of ginger and garlic taking over your kitchen, your house.  Many a fully-booked Malaysian and Korean restaurant says that I am not alone in my love of big flavours. I suspect that you have such leanings too.  Continue reading

Chilli Prawns and Vegetables with Soba Noodles


It has been some week. I am normally a very ‘even’ person – not much ruffles me. Perhaps it is because I can tick nearly all of the boxes that add up to a nice life. I won’t bore – or irritate – with the details but trust me, I’m one lucky person. But that doesn’t mean that underneath it all I am not paddling furiously, like everyone else.  And this week I paddled hard enough for a personal best.

Recent events have given me pause to reflect on what I hold dear. Nothing horrible has happened, not at all, but let’s just say I was running the emotional gauntlet this week – deep happiness and fulfillment, sudden terror followed by shock, corrosive frustration, and finally – best of all – joy. My poor adrenal glands don’t know what has hit them. To be honest, I’m wrung out. Pathetic when compared to those who deal with tragedy and emotional upheaval – and the aftermath of it – on a daily basis. For many, just getting by requires strength of character and determination that the rest of us pray we never have to draw upon. I have merely dipped my toe into the roiling sea that is many peoples’ day-to-day existence. Man-alive it’s made me grateful, thankful and all of those other positive ‘-fuls’.  Continue reading

Tofu and Aubergine Lime-Basil Stir Fry

tofu aubergine curry in bowl

I’ve pretty much just given you the ingredient list in the title. I actually got the idea for this recipes ages ago from the back of a box of Cauldron Foods tofu. Trying packet recipes is often a good idea, especially if you are unfamiliar with the product. If you think about it, it’s bound to be easy to follow and decent tasting because they want you to buy the product again. Anyway, although I don’t make this for work (I bring in home-prepared food rather than do food demos) it happens to be one of my family’s favourite meals. In fact, until I started buying gorgeously fresh Pittenweem fish from the visiting fish van, my daughter and I used to jokingly refer to Thursday as ‘Tofu Thursday’. I’m fairly certain we are unique (strange) in that respect. Unrestricted by a designated date, Tofu and Aubergine Basil-Lime Stir Fry still features regularly in our household, although my toned down version of Yotam Ottolenghi’s ‘Black Pepper Tofu’, from ‘Plenty’ is right up there, too. I’ll post that one at a later date, once I take some photos.

The Science Bit: Some of you may not have cooked with tofu, or think tofu is too bland to bother eating. Tofu IS bland – that’s what I think is so good about it. Its very blandness makes it very easy to taste like what you want it to taste like. Plus, the nutritional benefits are pretty top-notch, depending on who you ask. According to the Cauldron Foods website (whose information is a concise version of that found on most websites and books describing tofu’s plus points): “Tofu is… one of the (sic) only 2 plant-based proteins that contain all 8 essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. Soya is also cholesterol free and low in saturated fat, with no trans fat.  It contains fibre and is a good source of calcium, iron, magnesium, and some B vitamins.  It also contains linolenic acid, which is a polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid, which helps maintain a healthy heart.  The American FDA has stated that diets containing 25gms of soya protein combined with a low in saturated fat diet can help decrease cholesterol. Helping to normalise blood sugar levels is another feature of soya foods, since they have a low glycemic index.  It may also be in keeping blood pressure under control, it’s low in sodium/salt.  Soya products can help reduce menopause symptoms and act as a natural alternative to HRT, because soya is a source of genistein, which is an antioxidant rich in oestrogen-like isoflavones.” That’s us told.

Cancer-fighting credentials?: On my cancer nutrition course, women with breast cancer sometimes ask whether soy will help their cancer or if it in fact causes tumour growth. Although in recent years there has been some concern at the possibility that eating soy products may promote growth of existing breast tumours, it is now thought that food sources of phytoestrogens – including soy – are safe.  The general advice from doctors is that most women with breast cancer can include fermented and traditionally made soya products in a varied diet – one or two modest servings a day. Certainly it seems to be a good idea to include soy regularly in the diet if you are at risk of developing colon or prostate cancer. Discuss this issue with your doctor if you have any concerns or questions.

Now, back to the recipe. As with many stir fry dishes, this recipe is easily adapted to the contents of your veg box/CSA box. Right now you might have cauliflower coming out of your ears (there’s a bad joke in there somewhere). If so, instead of including aubergine, try adding steamed, (or roasted) sliced cauliflower stems and florets. Whack these in the wok, along with some frozen green beans and the rest of the ingredients, and you have a seasonal take on this surprisingly-interesting-for-tofu dish. I sometimes add leftover sweet potato cubes for a sweet note and pretty colour. The lead photo shows the dish with cooked brown rice noodles, but we usually have it with a side of oven-baked basmati rice to which I have added a tiny pinch of frozen, chopped lime leaves. And greedy so and sos that we are I slice and lightly steam a huge pile of pak choi for a crunchy, slightly bitter counterpoint.

tofu stir fry in wokTofu and Aubergine Stir fry

This recipe has slightly Thai overtones, using as it does lime juice, muscovado sugar (instead of Thai palm sugar), basil and soy/tamari sauce. Add the optional chillies if the children are having something else.

What You Need:

1 -2  firm aubergine(s), sliced into 1 cm wide batons (amount doesn’t matter unless they are both huge)

Oil spray OR 2 tbsp olive oil

1 x 200g packet basil tofu (I use Taifun brand), sliced in scant 1 cm strips OR marinate plain tofu*

150g fine/green beans, topped, tailed and sliced in half

juice of 2 limes

1 clove garlic, finely minced

3 tbsp muscovado sugar or other unrefined dark brown sugar

approx 4 tbsp tamari or soy sauce (it depends on how much juice is in the lime)

freshly ground pepper, to taste

½ tsp arrowroot or cornflour/cornstarch

handful fresh basil leaves (sweet kind if you can get them)

1-2 red or green chillies (optional)

Toss the aubergine batons in the oil or spray with an oil spray. Spread the aubergine batons onto a baking tray and bake at 200C/400F for between 15 and 20 minutes: you want it to soften and take on a little colour in places. Set aside while you make up the sauce and steam the beans.

In a small bowl, whisk together the lime juice, minced garlic, sugar, soy sauce or tamari, and the ground pepper. Steam the sliced beans for four minutes, or boil for two minutes. Drain the beans and ‘refresh’ by running them under the cold tap for a few seconds. Set aside to drain.

When the aubergine is ready, heat a wok or large sauté pan and add the sliced tofu, aubergines and beans; stir fry for a couple of minutes. Sprinkle over the arrowroot or cornflour and mix through the ingredients, then pour over the lime juice mixture, tossing to coat. Continue to stir fry for a further minute before adding the chilli and tearing in the basil leaves. Serve with Jasmine or basmati rice, brown rice noodles or soba noodles, and scatter with chopped cashew nuts.

* To marinate plain tofu, wrap the tofu in several sheets of paper towel and squeeze between two cutting boards, or between your palms – keep it in its square shape. Squeeze the juice of ½ a lime into a bowl and whisk in 1 tablespoon of sesame oil and 1 tablespoon of tamari or soy sauce. Slice the tofu into cubes and toss in the mixture, lightly pressing the tofu to help it soak up the flavours. Leave to marinate for 20 minutes before adding to the dish.