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    This Chinese tofu technique infuses flavour in just 20 minutes

    Joe Yonan

    THE WASHINGTON POST – When I asked cookbook author Hannah Che what she thinks many cooks misunderstand about tofu, she didn’t hesitate.

    “That it’s not necessarily supposed to be meaty,” she told me in a Zoom call from her Portland, Oregon, home. “If you think about it, it’s more like a dairy product because it’s made from coagulating soya milk.”

    In other words, tofu is closer to cheese (which comes in such a range of textures) than to meat (which does not), and the more you understand that as a cook, the better your results will be.

    Tofu takes centre stage in Che’s new book, The Vegan Chinese Kitchen, which chronicles how she came to terms with both her own cultural heritage and her desire to cook and eat plant-based food.

    The two had initially seemed in conflict when Che became vegan in 2015 while in college.

    On one trip home for the holidays, she realised that her newfound diet was in danger of disconnecting her from her immigrant parents and the traditions they remembered.

    “It’s impossible to separate who we are from what we eat, and animal products are deeply ingrained in the food traditions of most cultures,” she wrote in the book’s introduction.

    “How do you remove yourself from these traditions without a fundamental sense of loss?”

    Che’s answer was to study. She moved to China to attend Guangzhou Vegetarian Culinary School, immersing herself in the rich, ancient traditions of vegan and vegetarian cooking in China.

    She emerged determined to prove to everyone else what she had already proven to herself: that a vegan diet can be a way to connect with Chinese culture and tradition rather than separate from it.

    One of Che’s favourite recipes in the book is for a tofu dish that’s quickly becoming a go-to of mine, too. She calls it fragrant dressed tofu with garlic and basil (The Washington Post, pic above), and the technique behind it – basically poaching the tofu in heavily salted water – results in an infusion of flavour that marinating will never achieve. The technique, called liangban, also firms up the tofu’s texture and, somewhat counterintuitively, expels moisture inside.

    The second piece of this six-ingredient, 20-minute recipe is the combination of aromatic flavourings: finely chopped basil, garlic, toasted sesame oil and a pinch of MSG.

    I’ve swapped in chopped scallions instead of basil, but the next time, I’ll look for shiso leaves, a recommended alternative from Che.


    20 minutes

    Four servings

    This simple recipe from cookbook author Hannah Che showcases liangban, a preparation she calls the easiest way to cook tofu: blanching it, seasoning it with salt and sesame oil and folding in finely chopped fresh herbs or scallions. The garlic and basil combination is something like a coarse pesto, and the tofu gets even more umami from a little MSG. Serve with rice or another grain of your choice.

    Storage Notes: Refrigerate leftovers for up to three days.


    Quarter teaspoon fine salt, plus more as needed

    14 to 16 ounces medium-firm or firm tofu, drained and cut into half-inch cubes

    Two cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves, preferably Thai basil, finely chopped

    Two cloves garlic, pressed or finely grated

    One tablespoon toasted sesame oil

    Quarter teaspoon MSG (may substitute with one tablespoon nutritional yeast)


    Bring a medium saucepan of very generously salted water to a boil. Place a bowl of cold water near the stove.

    Use a slotted spoon to carefully lower the tofu cubes into the boiling water, reduce the heat so the water is simmering, and cook the tofu until completely heated through, three to four minutes. Use the slotted spoon to transfer the tofu to the bowl of cold water and let it cool for a few minutes. (The tofu’s outside surface will firm up as it cools.) Drain well and transfer to a large bowl.

    In a small bowl, stir together the basil, garlic, sesame oil, MSG and quarter teaspoon of salt until thoroughly combined.

    Transfer the sauce to the tofu and use a spatula to gently fold until the tofu cubes are evenly coated. Taste, and season with more salt as needed. Serve at room temperature or cold.

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