Making a really good meatless rendition of Sichuan mapo tofu has eluded me for years. Many of the versions I’ve tried used mushroom to mimic the ground beef or pork. The result was texturally off. I’d tried combining shiitake with white mushroom but it was so strong tasting, woodsy more than anything else. Plus, the mushroom cooked up dark, making the dish totally not like regular mapo tofu. The savory depth and richness of the ground meat that’s used in mapo tofu was missing.
Then there’s the use of weak chile bean sauce. You really need the punchy stuff from Sichuan if you want to makes something that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the conventional version of mapo tofu.
I was looking for a result that looked and tasted quite similar to the real deal. I was looking for a dish that could satisfy by culinarily punking your eyes and palate. That is no easy feat. I know that because I've been trying and thinking for some time.
While cleaning my office last week, I came across a Chinese vegetarian cookbook that employed tofu skin and shiitake mushroom to mimic the ground meat in mapo tofu. It didn’t sound quite like what I was looking for in a fake ground meat, but it did trigger this idea: Freeze, thaw, then crumble up some tofu!
I'd frozed leftover tofu before I headed to Asia in December so there was a stash to experiment with. After I combined it it with a little shiitake mushroom and dark soy sauce, I had a pretty good facsimile of ground meat.
The recipe below arose from a couple of rounds of tinkering in the kitchen. It visually and texturally looks like mapo tofu. Flavorwise, it has umami oomp from soy sauce as well as fermented bean sauce. My husband, who adores the classic version with ground beef, approved with a political joke: “Send this to Bill Clinton!” (My husband teaches political science and Clinton turn vegan a while ago.) We ate more than half of this batch below for dinner and then he took leftovers for lunch.
How does vegan mapo tofu differ from the regular mapo tofu? There are subtle differences between the vegan mapo tofu approach and the traditional version that’s in the Asian Tofu cookbook. Doing a clear straight sub for the beef or pork didn't work. I made subtle tweaks because the thawed tofu absorbs and reflects back the seasonings much more strongly than the beef.
P.S. If you can't get the Pixian chile bean sauce, add a quarter or half teaspoon of chile flakes to the wok for heat. My frozen tofu was from Whole Foods. The cubed tofu was Trader Joe's regular tofu.
Vegan Mapo Tofu
Yields: 4 servings
- 3 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 5 to 6 ounces (150 to 180 g) frozen extra-firm tofu
- 3/4 teaspoon dark soy sauce
- 16 ounces (450 g) medium or medium-firm tofu
- Generous 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 rounded teaspoon minced ginger
- 3 tablespoons chile bean sauce, Pixian kind preferred
- About 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon regular soy sauce
- 2 to 3 tablespoons canola oil
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch diluted in 2 to 3 tablespoons water
- 1 or 2 large green onions, green and white parts, cut on the diagonal
- Soak the mushroom in water (hot, warm, or cold, depending on how much time you have) to rehydrate. Meanwhile, thaw the frozen tofu at room temperature.
- Trim the mushroom of the stems, then finely chop. Transfer to a bowl. Stand over a sink and squeeze on the tofu to expel most of the excess water – until it resembles a moist sponge. Crumble the tofu into the mushroom bowl; don’t make it too small because you want some texture. Add the dark soy sauce and stir well to combine. Set aside.
- Cut the tofu into 1/2-inch (1.25 cm) cubes and put into a bowl. Add enough just-boiled water to cover, then soak for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, measure out 1 1/3 cups of water (the stuff you just boiled is fine) and set aside near the stove for later use.
- In a large wok or skillet, toast the peppercorn over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until fragrant and slightly darkened. Cool briefly, then pound with a mortar and pestle or grind in a spice grinder. Set aside.
- Drain the tofu in a strainer or colander and set near the stove with the other ingredients.
- Heat the oil in the wok or skillet over high heat. Add the crumbled tofu and mushroom, and cook for 1 minute until glossy and aromatic. Add the ginger, and chile bean sauce. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until the ingredients are reddish-brown color. Add the sugar and regular soy sauce, stir to combine, then add the tofu.
- Gently stir or give the wok a shake to combine. Pour in the 1 1/3 cups water you set aside earlier. Bring to a vigorous simmer, and cook for about 3 minutes to allow the tofu to absorb the flavors of the sauce.
- Taste the sauce and add a pinch of sugar, if needed. Add the green onion, stir, then add enough of the cornstarch slurry to thicken. Sprinkle in the ground peppercorn, restir to incorporate, then transfer to a shallow bowl. Let rest for 5 minutes to meld flavors before enjoying with lots of hot rice.