Tofu with tomatoes
For a long time, I didn’t get tofu. I just didn’t get it. Nor did I really get Chinese food. Not that it seemed complicated. I just didn’t care. I was happy with my Italian, Indian, Thai, Japanese and Mexican cuisines. Didn’t need Chinese to come in and mix things up. Then I went to China. This isn’t to suggest I went cold turkey from my Italian, Indian, Thai, Japanese or Mexican cuisines (although I avoided sushi). Chinese cities are cosmopolitan. You can eat almost anything you want, and so I had hamburgers for breakfast, avoided hot pot (nicknamed “mystery pot” by me and my friends) and congee like the plague. But Chinese food did gradually enter into my routine through group outings and dinners and trips to the countryside. Gently and unpretentiously, Chinese food won me over with simple dishes like this one, also converted me to tofu and preparing it at home. But it was the meals I ate, generally for lunch with fellow students, at small, crowded restaurants, or on trips to far-flung corners of Yunnan Province, that really stuck with me. You can’t eat alone without feeling deprived in some way, watching other tables laden with dishes, almost stacked on top of each other. These meals were meant to be eaten as part of an entourage, no one dish capable of serving all. A little of this, a green vegetable lightly stir-fried, a rice dish, a few meat dishes, a tofu dish, maybe a braised eggplant. As many or if not twice as many dishes are there are diners. Invariably the vegetarian dishes were some of my favorites. Little did I expect to be eating some of the same staples I grew up on in Jersey, including corn, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and spinach, mildly treated and incredibly fresh in Chinese dishes.
A few fresh ingredients, cooked with some vinegar, ginger, scallions and garlic, a slosh of chili oil. Tofu is a gelatinous, bland, but filing protein, a blank slate. I don’t expect it to behave like meat. I accept it for what it is, and treat it appropriately.
Tofu with tomatoes
- 1 block firm tofu, cubed and dried
- 2-3 medium-large tomatoes, chopped
- 3 scallions minced
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 tablespoon minced or grated ginger
- chili powder or whole chilis minced
- sesame oil
- rice vinegar
- soy sauce
To dry the tofu, first put on a plate between two sheets of paper towel. Place a plate on top of the block and weight it with whatever you have on hand, such as a can of beans or other heavy object. Allow to sit for a few minutes. Then remove the weights, plate and paper towels and cube.
Cook ginger, garlic and scallions in sesame oil with chili powder or diced chilis. Add the tomatoes, generous glug of vinegar and soy sauce and cook till the tomatoes are tender. Add the tofu and cook a few more minutes on high to allow the sauce to permeate the tofu. Serve hot with an extra sprinkle of raw scallion on top.