A quivering block of tofu might not get everyone’s creative juices flowing, but just a few simple cooking techniques and unexpected ingredients can turn the soybean curd into restaurant-quality meals. One writer tries chef Ravinder Bhogal’s The Curiosity Academy masterclass to make three lip-smackingly tasty tofu dishes.
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Like a lot of vegetarians, I have a conflicted relationship with tofu. I’ll happily slice a block into a delicious stir-fry, or lap it up in a laksa. But to be honest, the sight of a quivering block of the stuff doesn’t get my creative juices going the way a punnet of mushrooms might. And I wouldn’t dare serve it to an omnivore, after hearing one too many horror stories about how they were emotionally scarred by an encounter with a spongy, watery tofu slab back in ‘94.
Luckily, chef Ravinder Bhogal is here to change that. Her Curiosity Academy masterclass, Three Ways to Make Tasty Tofu, teaches you how to make three easy-but-exciting dishes that challenge your perceptions of what this time-honoured soybean-based curd can do.
Ravinder is the brains behind Marylebone restaurant Jikoni, which is known for “cooking across borders” – so it’s no surprise that her methods for rehabilitating tofu’s troubled reputation take in both western and eastern cooking styles.
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First up, it’s grilled peaches with silken tofu and Thai basil and lime leaf gremolata’, which takes inspiration from both Italian and Thai cuisine. The long title – and equally long list of ingredients – had my chopping fingers trembling a little. But actually, this recipe is all about using familiar techniques to produce totally surprising flavours.
The ‘gremolata’ is an Italian sauce made of freshly chopped herbs, whizzed up in the blender. Ravinder switches out familiar basil for the more aromatic, aniseed-tinged Thai basil, and makes it zing with an injection of lime. It’s there to add flavour to a creamy expanse of creamed tofu: it turns out that if you put silken tofu in the blender with a little oil and salt, it becomes a deliciously fluffy, cream-cheese like foil for powerful flavours.
Much like British summers, British peaches can be disappointing, but Ravinder’s advice to grill them gives a charred sweetness. Combine them all daintily on a plate, and the resulting dish sits in an exciting hinterland between sweet and savoury: perfect for a hot summer’s day, or pretending it’s one at least.
The next dish is a lot simpler, but it’s also memorably delicious. I’ve been dolloping Laoganma’s crispy chilli sauce on pretty much any foodstuff you can imagine since I first bought a jar during the pleasure-starved days of lockdown. So I’m relieved that my dangerous addiction gets the cheffy seal of approval when Ravinder uses it as the base for a Chinese-inspired dressing.
Slices of cold tofu start to sing when they’re marinated in the chilli sauce, together with another star ingredient, the sweetly acidic Chinkiang black vinegar.
Then comes the fun bit: piling your plate with crispy garnishes including puffed rice (not just for breakfast!), crispy shallots, and roasted peanuts. She also suggests purple shiso cress: I totally baffled the staff of every Asian supermarket in Lewisham on my futile quest to source some, but a dusting of fresh coriander was more than enough greenery.
By this point, my tiny kitchen was filling up with a chaotic cornucopia of novel ingredients. Time for a reset ahead of this class’s most challenging dish, caramel braised tofu. I’m a kitchen wuss who generally avoids anything involving boiling pans of molten sugar or hot oil. But Ravinder’s presence is oddly comforting as I dig out the thermometer and prepare for some culinary alchemy. The previous two recipes involved meltingly soft silken tofu: this recipe is a celebration of the more robust charms of firm tofu, united with a sticky aromatic caramel sauce, and then pepped up with a punch of Sichuan pepper.
The result feels like it’s straight out of a restaurant: the crunchy edges of the deep-fried tofu give way beautifully to the sticky inside, and the long-simmered sauce is full of unusual flavour.
Unfortunately for the purposes of this scientific experiment, I didn’t have any true tofu haters to feed these dishes to (apart from my cat, Custard, who did lick some creamed tofu from my finger with surprising keenness). But my partner and I gobbled up our three-course tofu banquet with worrying speed, then started plotting other uses for some of its ingredients. That Asian-inspired gremolata would be lovely on sweet potatoes, we decided, while the deep-fried tofu would be a textured addition to any summer salad. Plus, some of Ravinder’s suggestions are useful for veganising other dishes: she uses pineapple juice in place of fish sauce, for a touch of funky sweetness.
I’m left with a considerable sense of accomplishment after chopping and stirring my way through three recipes in under an hour, and Ravinder’s video tutorial was a reassuring, advice-filled guide through this culinary odyssey. It was handy being able to stop, start, rewind, and peer closely at the screen to make sure my presentation was lavishing all possible care on these elegant dishes.
It’s crazy that British diners scapegoat tofu as offputting and novel when it’s been relished in China for 2,000 years. And the key to enjoying it is to treat it with the care and respect it deserves, starting right here in my kitchen.
If you want to cook your own tofu dishes, join Ravinder Bhogal’s class Three Ways to Make Tofu Tasty on The Curiosity Academy.
Images: Alice Saville