I confess that today’s recipe started life as a beef salad, one of many I’ve co-opted into my regular fast-meal repertoire from Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s 15-minute Meals book. Ever since I first made it with beef fillet, it has been a firm favourite with family and friends. I’ve played around with it over the years but it still takes minutes to make and never fails to impress. If you serve it proudly on your best platter (in my case, a vintage English one found in a junk shop in Pakistan by my husband), guests will be certain you’ve gone to a lot of trouble when in fact all you have done is a little chopping, grating and mixing.

Over the years, though, many friends and some close family members have stopped eating meat, and so, to please vegans and vegetarians, I have started making the salad with tofu. Initially, I didn’t give the tofu a second thought, it was simply a convenient (in my view, pretty bland) protein substitute for the beef, which took well to being cooked the same way as the meat. Recently, though, as I too have been cutting down on meat, I’ve started taking a closer look at the tofu itself.

Tofu was first made in China 2,000 years ago—the name comes from the Chinese “do-fu", meaning “curdled milk". It is produced by the impossible-sounding process of extracting a milky liquid from soya bean, then curdling it with a salt or acid (a little like making paneer, but much more labour-intensive). Tofu arrived in Japan about 700 years later, where it became an important part of the national diet. A 2005 New Yorker article on Japan’s tofu masters by Judith Thurman put it this way: “Every tribe...has an ancestral food that its exiles yearn for, and that its children can’t live without.... When a tofu master offers you a slice of bean curd he has just unmoulded, he is inviting you to partake, insofar as a stranger can, of what it means to be Japanese."

Artisanal tofu is highly prized in Japan, and elsewhere, for its delicate taste and texture, as well as its health-giving properties: It is low in calories, high in protein, rich in minerals and amino acids, while avoiding all animal products. So maybe it’s time we treated tofu with a little more respect. This salad is a great place to start—lots of different flavours to enhance what many would describe as its intrinsic blandness. It looks like a long list of ingredients but rest assured the salad comes together very quickly.

Five-spice tofu salad

Ingredients

For the cucumber pickle

3 tbsp rice vinegar

1 tbsp caster sugar

3 tbsp soy sauce

1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes

1 cucumber, finely sliced into ribbons

For the salad

50g cashew nuts

1 tbsp sunflower seeds

2 tbsp sesame seeds

200g vermicelli rice noodles

A handful of mixed, sprouted lentils

200g Chinese cabbage, finely shredded

1 mooli, peeled and grated (or a handful of sliced small radishes)

1 large carrot, peeled and grated

300g firm silken tofu

1 tbsp cornflour

2 tbsp Chinese five-spice powder

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tbsp sunflower oil

A handful of chopped mint leaves

For the dressing

3 tbsp fish sauce

3 tbsp lime juice

2 tbsp soft brown sugar

1 small red chilli, finely chopped

1 tsp fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped

Method

First make the pickled cucumber. Mix together the rice vinegar, sugar, soy sauce and chilli flakes in a bowl large enough to add the cucumber to. Cut the cucumber into fine ribbons—a vegetable peeler makes light work of this. Add the cucumber ribbons to the pickling liquid, mix well and set aside.

Heat a heavy-based frying pan over medium heat, then sprinkle in the cashew nuts, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds. Stir the nuts and seeds gently, then, when nicely browned and smelling good, put them in a bowl.

Put the rice noodles in a large bowl, cover with boiling water, leave for 5 minutes, then drain.

On your finest platter, arrange little heaps of noodles, sprouted lentils, shredded Chinese cabbage, grated carrot and radish. Mix all the ingredients for the dressing.

Just before you’re ready to serve the salad, fry the tofu. Cut your block of tofu into rectangles roughly 5x2cm. Dust each piece with cornflour, then sprinkle with five-spice powder and salt and pepper. Heat a little oil in the frying pan you used to toast the nuts and seeds. Gently fry the tofu until browned and crispy on all sides. Add to your platter. Scatter the nuts and seeds and the chopped mint over the salad. Serve with the pickled cucumber and dressing on the side.

The Way We Eat Now is a column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains.

The writer tweest at@eatanddust

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