It might be food blog suicide to admit, that while I immensely enjoy cooking, I am not always a great eater. Anyone who has met me might snigger reading that, considering my generous proportions. Let’s ignore the fact. The truth is, that being deeply entrenched in the sounds, smells, scents and tastes of the food as I cook, I reach the dinner table with saturated senses. And then, anything consumed is purely for fuel purposes. A bit sad really, but there you have it.
Tofu wouldn’t be something you’d associate with whetting the appetite. And you would be right. It doesn’t quite taste of anything, has a texture that can feel questionable (erasers, sponges and the like), and disintegrates easily in the pan. Not for the heavy handed, slap dash cook. I liked it in a miso soup and that was the introduction and extent of my acquaintance with this odd block . Friends however, can influence more than your clothes shopping and best pal Jouels was the first to educate me on tofu. Contrary to my food attitudes and habits, Jouels is a bit of a health nut (not to mention a marathon addict…my lungs constrict at the thought) and so tofu, for her, is a staple.
I had Jouels voice ringing in my head as I peered into the cold stock aisle at Tesco looking at a packet of fresh tofu blinking at me. I didn’t have anything to lose; I mean, it’s not like she asked me to buy chicken feet (as good as that may be, but slightly out of the norm for your average British shopping list). Browsing recipes online, I spied Yotam Ottelenghi’s Guardian Column and there he had a recipe for Black Pepper Tofu.
Black peppercorns and I, are involved. Deeply. Rasams of my childhood, that black pepper and tomato boiled curry broths, remain special and I carry a yearning for it daily. My grandmother had a peppercorn plant which clung seductively to the mango tree, the tresses of berries tumbling down where it willed. I was fascinated by the fact that such a small, dainty looking thing could be so powerful. It’s hard for me to refrain from giving anything I cook, a good grinding of this pungent aromatic. So when I saw this recipe heavily dusted with pepper, I knew it was the one.
Now I have changed a few things from the original, mainly because I would prefer to keep my intestinal tract intact. The original calls for eight red chillies and five tablespoons of ground pepper. I love hot food, I do. But even I know, that this is beyond the capacity of the occasional hot chilli indulger. Excessive amounts like these are nothing if you have built up a tolerance by consuming it day in and out, as is the norm for most of the South East Asian Countries and even parts of India, particularly the state of Andra Pradesh. I have not quite reached that level. So, I have reduced it to a mere two chillies (the longer, red, milder ones) and a heaped tablespoon of black peppercorns.
I have also reduced the amount of butter specified by half. It really doesn’t need more. The shallots, though a wonderfully sweet addition to the recipe but not always easy to find here, I have subbed it with your bog standard onions. I also, maybe more controversially, have scrapped the initial cornflour dusting of the tofu and browned them, naked, in the hot oil. On another note, I can understand that tofu might not be your thang. If so, prawns or chicken, indeed tender strips of beef would not be wrong. It really isn’t a big deal. In other words, do as you see fit. It’s your kitchen, your dinner, your tastes.
What happens is that you basically make a masala out of the shallots and other aromatics like ginger, garlic and chillis. Then add your condiments, primarily the sweet soy sauce. I implore you to seek out this ingredient. It goes by the name Indonesian soy too, is thick, syrupy and completely delicious. You will not reserve its use to just this recipe. Stir fries are sensational with it. It’s a vital, non negotiable part of this recipe, though the dark and light soys in here are interchangeable. Add your previously browned tofu and chuck in spring onions at the very end for some fresh crunch. The deep savouriness of the ‘masala’ is so well matched by the salty, sweet of caramel tinged soy sauce, all bearing upon the soft tofu. To balance the heat, I make the simplest of simple salads. Ribboned cooling cucumber and crunchy carrot, dressed in rice vinegar, sugar and salt added to taste. It all works wonderfully.
No matter what the day has been like, I am ready to eat this meal. I don’t have too many repeat recipes, but this dish has earned a permanent place in the monthly, if not weekly, repertoire. I come to the table with greed motivated speed. It is gratifyingly filling, full throttle on the taste front and, with rice, the crisp covered, heat loaded, soft hearted tofu becomes oddly comforting. I may be sniffling with the heat of the pepper hitting the back of my throat but after I finish two rounds of this, I am saturated only with satisfaction.