With about half the heaping mound still staring back at me, my enthusiasm began to flag. Fragrant, glistening vaguely in the afternoon light, it was some of the most genuinely meaty dumpling filling I had ever prepared, and yet I couldn’t muster the patience to keep stuffing it into those tiny little wrappers. The final total of “40 – 50” is admittedly a wild estimate, a complete stab in the dark if we’re being honest, because I never made it to either of those numbers. An extra set of hands would do wonders on a recipe like this; simple but time consuming, demanding few skills but undivided attention. Giving up on the project never crossed my mind, but it became abundantly clear that there would be leftover filling.
This is not what I’d call leftovers, bearing the negative connotations of unwanted extras. Before neatly packing everything away for a later date, the next recipe was already jumping about through my synapses, the full procedure and list of ingredients unraveling itself in my brain. Perhaps we can call this concept an alternative preparation, since it’s worth making the original filling to enjoy, with or without any dumplings in mind.
Mapo tofu won’t win any beauty contests, but someone who turns down this dish based on looks is making a terrible mistake. Packing in umami flavor with ease, the soft cubes of tofu bear a spicy bite, swimming in a meaty stew of chili-spiked seitan. Naturally, my approach is far from authentic, spanning a number of Asian cultures just through the ingredients. Malaysian sambal oelek brings the heat while a spoonful of Chinese fermented black beans add their characteristic salty and savory twang. You could jump borders again and opt for a Japanese soy sauce, if you were after a genuine cultural melting pot… But it would taste just as delicious no matter what. Mapo tofu is the kind of dish that a cook would really have to try to mess up. Go ahead, experiment with sriracha instead of the sambal, dark miso paste instead of black beans; after it all simmers together and melds as one, it’s all good.
1 1/2 Cups Seitan Dumpling Filling
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil
1 Tablespoon Finely Minced Garlic
1 Tablespoon Finely Minced Fresh Ginger
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
3 Skinny Scallions, Thinly Sliced on the Diagonal, Divided
1 – 3 Tablespoons Sambal Oelek
1/2 Cup Low-Sodium Vegetable Broth or Water
1 Tablespoon Cornstarch
3 Tablespoons Fermented Black Bean Paste
2 – 3 Tablespoons Low-Sodium Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Brown Rice Syrup or Light Brown Sugar
1 Pound Soft (But not Silken) Tofu, Drained
Prepare the ground seitan according to the dumpling recipe and set aside.
Heat the sesame oil in a medium stock pot or large saucepan over medium heat. Toss in the garlic and ginger once the oil is shimmering and quickly saute, just until fragrant and lightly browned. Add the prepared seitan mixture into the pan and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
Meanwhile, whisk together the black pepper, two of the sliced scallions, the first tablespoon of sambal oelek, broth, and cornstarch. Beat out any lumps of starch so that the liquid is perfectly smooth before using it to deglaze the hot pan. Scrape the bottom of the pan with your spatula to make sure nothing sticks or burns, and turn down the heat to medium-low.
Stir in the black bean past, first two tablespoons of soy sauce, and brown rice syrup. Let it cook and mingle for a minute or two before giving it a taste; add more sambal or soy sauce as desired, but as you adjust seasonings, don’t even think of reaching for the salt shaker. These are all very salty ingredients, and you’ll end up with something inedible if you don’t manage the sodium level very carefully.
Once you’re pleased with the flavors developing, cut your tofu into 1/2-inch cubes and gently lower them into the stew. Soft tofu is rather fragile, so don’t go haphazardly stirring the whole mixture and smashing them to bits. Rather, use your spatula to fold everything together.
Continue to cook until the liquid has thickened and reaches a rapid bubble. Let cool for a few minutes before topping with the remaining sliced scallions, and serve with white rice (or any other cooked grain) if desired.
Makes 3 – 4 Servings