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The Vegan Experience: Can I Make Vegan Mapo Tofu That's Better Than The Real Thing?
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Note: For the 32 days between February 1st and March 4th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!
If Serious Eats Fast Food Secretary Will Gordon were to hypothetically continue to metaphorically prod and poke at me until I finally snapped and took to riding my pedicab around town smiting any who dare clad their feet in more than a single-thong flip-flop during the months between November and March, and if I were to then avoid the inevitable drone strike hit by dodging behind a row of dumpling trucks, only to discover that the cops decided to give donuts a miss that day in lieu of Peking ravioli, and if I were then rapidly shuttled through the judicial system (and this paragraph) and found myself on death row, what would I request for my final meal before moving on to that great meat grinder in the ground?
Mapo Tofu. And I'm not just talking real deal mapo tofu, covered in hot chili oil and laced with Sichuan peppercorns, I'm talking mapo tofu in all of its forms. Whether from a packet or from my mom's kitchen. The sweet gloppy kind they make in Japan, or the spicy gloppy kind they make in New York. So long as its silken, saucy, and comforting, then it's the meal for me.
The dish originates in the city of Chengdu in Sichuan province, where the story goes that poor travelers passing by would give blocks of tofu and what little beef they could afford to the old pock-marked lady who ran the inn. She'd cook them together along with the local condiments of fermented broad bean chili paste, chili oil, and Sichuan peppercorns. The resulting dish is one of the greatest dishes in the world, and it exists not only inspite of, but because of the fact that the options of ingredients were so severely restricted.
Well, I thought to myself last week. As a part-time vegan, my options for ingredients are similarly impaired. Why not use this time as an opportunity to do some real exploring?
My goal was to break down and identify precisely what it is that I enjoy about mapo tofu, then rebuild the dish from the ground up using ingredients that are 100% vegan friendly. The dish I finally came up with is so darn good (if I do say so myself) that it may well replace the actual beef version when I get back 'round to eating dead animals again.
What Makes Mapo?
There are five real elements in mapo tofu: The tofu itself, the aromatics, the broth/sauce, the oil layer, and the beef.
The tofu layer is a given for me; I've tried all manner of tofu, but fresh, high quality, semi-firm silken tofu is the right beast for the job. The oil layer I've also given plenty of thought to in the past. The key is to build in complexity by adding flavors in stages; first infusing the oil with sichuan peppercorns and chilis, then cooking with it, before finally adding fresh chili oil to the dish towards the end of cooking.
The aromatics I've also played around with. To the traditional base of garlic, ginger, and scallions, I've tried other alliums ranging from onions (not so great) to ramps (amazing, when they're in season). These days, I settle for Chinese chives (when I can get them) or regular chives (when I can't). Both of them add complexity and a nice vegetal green element to the final dish.
Then we come to the broth and the meat. The two elements that I've never fiddled with, and whaddaya know? They also happen to be the two meaty elements. I've spoken before about how after becoming vegan I quickly realized how easy it is to get into a rut when you base your diet around meat, how for many dishes or meals, the meat is a given, and you work around it. By forcing myself to give up meat, on the other hand, I've had to focus on other, creative ways to bring satisfying flavor and texture into the kitchen. Diversity through restriction is what I called it.
Until this moment, I had literally never considered that the beef and broth elements of mapo tofu could perhaps be improved.
Flavor and Texture
For the broth, I began by looking back at the soy-mushroom broth I developed for my vegan udon. The addition of sweet elements were out of place in my mapo tofu, but I loved the idea of using a mix of both Asian and Western mushrooms to bring complexity and depth to its aroma. I settled on a mix of dried woodear, dried morel, and dried porcini mushrooms.
Once the mushrooms were re-hydrated and the resultant broth drained off, I added soy sauce and rice wine, along with a bit of cornstarch (just enough to thicken it slightly, but not enough to turn it gloppy or to cause the oil in the final dish to emulsify).
This'll do, I thought to myself, as I slurped it off a spoon, forgetting the rest of the dish for a moment.
Looking at the drained re-hydrated mushrooms, I thought to myself that perhaps the solution was as simple as just chopping them up and using them in place of the beef in the dish. Mushrooms—particularly intense dried mushrooms like these—have great savory flavor on their own. It's not beef—but that's fine by me. Replicating beef was not my goal. Coming up with a new version that is true to the spirit of the original dish is what I was after.
Unfortunately, the dried-mushroom version didn't quite get there. The richness and savoriness was not quite high enough, and I wanted something with a bit more chew texturewise. I tried a few of my other common tricks—adding liquid aminos, extra soy sauce, and other glutamate-rich ingredients to enhance the umami sensation of the dish—but they didn't add much that the chili bean paste and standard amount of soy sauce weren't already doing.
If you'll indulge me for a moment: There is a technique in Sichuan called dry frying. Dry-frying involves covering meat with oil and cooking it until it is nearly dehydrated on the exterior. The result is meat with a much denser, chewier texture, as well as more open structure that allows it to soak up sauce and flavor more easily. While dry-frying is traditionally used mostly for meat, I wondered if it could be used on other foods for similarly state-altering results.
So I thought, well, I'm already using mushrooms, and I've got this whole oil infusion thing going on, and with dry-frying, would it be possible to put the three ideas together into some sort of bionic, super-powered, volton-esque ultra-technique?
For my next batch, I started out by chopping a whole bunch of fresh button mushrooms in a food processor. Rather than simply stir-frying them into the final dish, I put them in a wok with oil, then turned on the heat, stirring the mushrooms as they cooked...
until nearly all their moisture had evaporated and they were deeply browned.
I strained the mushrooms, resulting in little nubs that were chewy, deeply flavored, and intensely satisfying.
I stirred them together with the re-hydrated mushrooms, resulting in what I'm going to dub my Mince Mushroom Mix. I'll be pulling out the old M3 whenever I need to add flavor and texture to a vegan-ized Chinese dish.
And what's this? Birthday present for me? I also ended up with an intensely mushroom-scented infused oil with which to cook my dish in.
From here on out, the rest of the dish was a cakewalk. I returned that mushroom oil to the wok, added sichuan peppercorns and dried chilies, heated them to further infuse the oil, then used that oil to stir fry my aromatics and my M3 before adding chili bean paste and my mushroom broth mixture. Finally, I folded in my soft tofu, finishing off the dish with a drizzle of chili oil and a sprinkle of more Sichuan peppercorns and scallions.
As I mentioned before, the resulting dish is one that's going to end up replacing the authentic version in the future whenever I need my monthly mapo fix. It's seriously that good.
Don't believe me? There's an easy way for you to find out for yourself...
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.