I hadn’t meant to hit you with tofu straight after the excesses of Christmas. Truly. It smacks of detox and diet, and other depressing ‘d’ words. If you know me, or read me regularly, you’ll know that’s not what I’m about. I’d rather rub chillies in my eyes, or grate my knuckles on a Microplane ® grater than go on a diet. And as for detox, that’s what our livers are for; we don’t need to go on juice fasts, just stop eating rubbish and drinking alcohol (I know, easier said than done). But also if you know me you’ll know that I love tofu. Or rather, I love what you can do with tofu. Bland beyond belief on its own, I grant you, but when even briefly introduced to things with flavour – I’m thinking miso, soy, chillies, citrus, garlic – it transforms from a simpering slab of blah to a delightful dish of mmm. Perhaps I’m overselling the old beancurd, but I really think this simple, straightforward recipe may change your mind.
I actually came up with this recipe ages ago, probably influenced by some long forgotten recipe, or photo torn from a magazine. I remember, when I first made it, the Cinderella-like makeover from pale tasteless cubes to mouth-watering umami silky softness (although back then no-one but the Japanese knew about umami). But for some reason I rarely make it now, preferring to try and develop tricksy and cunning recipes to convince tofu-haters of the folly of their ways. Well, this is neither of those. But it is particularly delicious – and very simple to make. Now that I’ve rediscovered this recipe, I will be making it much more often. Especially because once you have all the ingredients out, it takes all of 10 minutes to prepare.
I have blathered on in previous posts about the nutritional virtues of tofu, so if you want the detail of what it is and why it’s good for most of us, see one of my very first posts – Tofu and Aubergine Lime-Basil Stir Fry. The photos are well-dodgy, but the recipe and information are sound. If you can’t be bothered to wade through that post, I can tell you briefly that tofu is cooked and pressed soy beans, made up into little pale blocks. Sounds yummy so far, I’m sure. In those little blocks, which you can find in long-life UHT cartons (these may be the most tasteless), in open containers of brine at Chinese markets (not keen on the germ potential) and in refrigerated packs (favoured option), is one of only two plant-based complete proteins. That should be enough to have most vegetarians hooked, but it is also low GI/GL, low-fat, cholesterol-free, a good source of iron, magnesium and some B vitamins, and a terrific source of calcium, owing to the way in which it is made. It may also help with menopausal symptoms, and reduce the risk of colon and prostate cancer. I mostly use tofu in its unadorned form because I like to flavour it myself, but you can get all manner of titivations – bbq, marinated, smoked, herby, etc – just watch out for too much added fat and salt.
Back to the recipe. If tamarind paste is a bit tricky to come by, head to your closest Asian grocer. There you will either get a nice big tub of paste for the price of a dinky one at a supermarket, or – what I have – get a bag of squashy, black tamarind pods to soak in water, squidge between your fingers and push through a sieve. The latter does sound a faff, but it’s weirdly pleasing (yes, I’m easily pleased) and no added ingredients. Both the paste and pods keep for a long time. Oh, and if you think you have never had tamarind, think again: it’s a main flavouring in Worcestershire and HP sauces.
And as for the shiitake, fresh shiitake are commonly available but dried shiitake are fine when re-hydrated (various makes available; I use Merchant Gourmet). Although you can really taste the ‘shiitake-ness’ in this recipe, try chestnut mushrooms if you fancy this recipe but can’t immediately find the shiitake. But, please try it with earthy, chewy shiitake if possible.