Pipa tofu
Photo: Kelly Rossiter
It doesn't take much of an excuse to make and eat Chinese food around my house. Last week was the beginning of the Lunar New Year, so a fantastic vegetarian tofu dish was in order. I know there are lots of people out there who turn their noses up at tofu, often because they don't like the texture. This is a luscious tofu like you've never eaten it before. You whiz the tofu in a food processor, add a few ingredients and then fry them in oil. Now, you can stop right there and just dip them in some salt and crushed Szechuan peppercorns and be completely happy. Or you can go ahead and make this recipe for a wonderful dinner.
The fried tofu were a bit crispy on the outside with a creamy interior. However, once you put them into the sauce, they softened up and reminded me of the kind of soft flour dumplings that you get on top of a chicken stew. They also held together quite well and were still delicious the next day for lunch.
It takes a bit of time to make the tofu puffs, but the sauce takes very little time at all. If you want, you can make the tofu puffs a day in advance and keep them in the refrigerator. This recipe is from Fuchsia Dunlop's cookbook "Every Grain of Rice" and according to her this recipe gets it's name from a pipa, which is a pear-shaped Chinese lute. She shapes her puffs into this pear shape, but she is a perfectionist and I am not, so I just scooped the tofu mixture up with a spoon and they came out any old shape. The recipe calls for dried shiitake mushrooms, but I actually had some fresh on hand and I used them and it worked perfectly well. If you don't have potato flour to use as a thickening agent, then just use cornstarch. When you are finished frying, keep the oil in a jar in the refrigerator for use another day.

Prep time: 30 minutes 

Total time: 1 hour (including 30 minutes for mushrooms to soak) 

Yield: 4 servings

Pipa Tofu

Ingredients for the tofu puffs

  • 1 dried shiitake mushroom
  • 9 oz plain white tofu
  • 2 tbsp very finely chopped carrot
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped cilantro
  • 1 large egg white
  • 3 tbsp potato flour
  • Salt
  • Ground white pepper
  • At least 1 1/2 cups cooking oil for deep frying
Ingredients for the sauce
  • 2 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 spring onion
  • A few slices of peeled ginger
  • A few slices of carrot
  • A few slices of fresh red chili
  • 1 cup vegetarian stock or mushroom soaking water
  • 1 tbsp Shaoxing wine, or sherry
  • 1 tbsp light or tamari soy sauce
  • 1/8 tsp dark soy sauce
  • 1 tsp potato flour mixed with 1 tbsp cold water
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
Cooking directions
  1. Soak all the mushrooms in 1 cup plus 2 tbsp hot water for at least 30 minutes. Drain, reserving the water. Discard the stalks. Finely chop one mushroom and thinly slice the other two. Blitz the tofu to a paste in a food processor. Mix in the chopped mushroom, carrot, cilantro, egg white, flour, 1/4 tsp salt and some pepper. Slice the spring onion white on the diagonal and cut the green into 1 3/4 inch lengths.
  2. Rub a couple of dessert spoons with oil. In a wok, heat the oil to 375F. Scoop up spoonfuls of tofu mixture and slide them gently into the oil. Do not fry more than 5 spoonfuls at once or they will stick to one another. Leave for a couple of minutes until golden, then flip over for another minute or two. Remove from the oil with a sloted spoon and drain on paper towels. Continue until you have fried all the mixture.
  3. Pour off the oil and wipe out the wok. Return it to a high heat with 2 tbsp fresh oil. Add the ginger, spring onion whites, carrot, sliced mushrooms and chilli and and stir-fry until they smell wonderful. Pour in the stock or mushroom water, bring to a boil and add the Shaoxing wine, soy sauces and salt and pepper to taste. Add the puffs and simmer for a minute or two. Give the potato flour mixture a stir and add, stirring as the liquid thickens to the consistencey of heavy cream. Throw in the spring onion greens, stir, then , off the heat, mix in the sesame oil.

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How to Make Pipa Tofu
This fried tofu dish named after a pear-shaped Chinese lute can work as a crunchy snack or as a full-blown meal.