Friday, July 31, 2020

Vegan Ma-Po Tofu with Tomatoes for Cook the Books June/July Pick: "Kitchen Chinese" by Ann Mah

I'm sneaking in right under the wire for today's deadline for Cook the Books. I actually had the book finished and my dish made a few days ago but life got in the way and I wasn't able to get my  personal laptop replaced until today. Better late than never! Our book this round was Kitchen Chinese: A Novel About Food, Family, and Finding Yourself by Ann Mah, selected and hosted by my fellow Hawaii-based blogger Claudia of Honey From Rock. (You can see her announcement post here).

From my Kindle:
Isabelle Lee thinks she knows everything about Chinese cuisine. After all, during her Chinese-American childhood, she ate it every day. Isabelle may speak only kitchen Chinese--the familial chatter learned at her mother's knee--but she understands the language of food. Now, in the wake of a career-ending catastrophe, she's ready for a change--so she takes off for Beijing to stay with her older sister, Claire, whom she's never really known, and finds a job writing restaurant reviews for an expat magazine. In the midst of her extreme culture shock, and the more she comes to learn about her sister's own secrets, Isabelle can't help but wonder whether coming to China was a mistake . . . or an extraordinary chance to find out who she really is.
--Patricia Wells, author of Vegetable Harvest and We'll Always Have Paris... and Provence

I was very happy that Claudia picked this book as right now with all that is going on with life and the world, I am really appreciating lighter reads. I had read and enjoyed the author's book The Lost Vintage that I reviewed as part of a blog book tour two years ago (see that review here), and in fact, I bought Kitchen Chinese after reading The Lost Vintage but with astronomically high TBR piles on my Kindle and in print, I needed the push to get it read. I think the tagline of the book describes it best, "A novel about food, family, and finding yourself." When Isabelle Lee gets fired from her fact-checking job in New York, she heads to Beijing to regroup and to stay with her estranged sister Claire, a high-powered expat attorney. Isabelle really wants to be a serious journalist but finds herself writing about restaurants, food and life styles for an expat magazine. There are new friends and a a couple of romantic entanglements for her and her attempt to crack the walls her sister has put up. Is it a little predictable, sure... but it is charming with heart and humor and had me craving Chinese food with every page. If you like lighter foodie fiction that you can escape with, it is an enjoyable way to pass the time. If you prefer wine and vinyards and dual time periods, give The Lost Vintage a try too.   

Food Inspiration:
This book is so full of food--from the descriptions of Chinese regional cuisines at the beginnings of chapters, to the many dishes Isabelle tries in restaurants and cooks at home, to the recipes the author includes in the back. Not everything consumed is Chinese--there are plenty of other cuisines and even fusion dishes mixed in.

When it came to my bookish dish, I have really been craving Ma-Po (or Mapo) Tofu but it is hard for me to get a meat-free version at many Chinese restaurants because the minced pork is such an integral part of the dish. Recently, I bought a package of plant-based ground meat alternative on sale and I thought it would be the perfect chance to use it. I could have found a more traditional recipe or used the one the author provides in the book but I wanted to cook a Mark Bittman recipe this week to take part in I Heart Cooking Clubs potluck week, and I found his version with diced tomatoes that sounded simple and good. 

Vegan Ma-Po Tofu with Tomatoes
Slightly Adapted from Mark Bittman via
(Yields 4 Servings)

1 Tbsp peanut or vegetable oil
1 Tbsp minced garlic
1 Tbsp minced ginger
1/4 tsp red chile flakes, or to taste (I used Sriracha to taste)
4 oz ground pork (I used 12 oz Lightlife Plant-Based Ground) 
1/2 cup chopped scallions (+ extra to serve)
2 cups chopped tomatoes (canned are fine, just drain juices) (I used diced fire-roasted)
12 oz firm silken tofu, cut into small cubes
2 Tbsp soy sauce
salt, if needed
chopped fresh cilantro or scallions for garnish

Put the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the garlic, ginger, and chile flakes and cook just until they begin to sizzle, less than a minute. Add the pork and stir to break it up; cook, stirring occasionally, until it loses most of its pink color and begins to crisp, 3–5 minutes.
Add the scallions, tomatoes, and stock. Cook for a minute or two, scraping the bottom of pan with a wooden spoon to loosen any brown bits of meat. Add the tofu and cook, stirring once or twice, until the tofu is heated through, about 2 minutes.
Stir in the soy sauce; taste and season with salt and more red chile flakes if you like. Garnish with cilantro and serve.

Notes/Results: So simple and really delicious. This was my first time using the Lightlife Plant-Based Ground and it browned and crisped right up and the little bites I took tasted pretty close to cooked hamburger. The flavor and texture when it was mixed into the dish made it even more difficult to tell it was plant-based meat. I used entire package of the faux meat that I got on sale and certainly don't think the dish suffered for the extra. ;-) The tomatoes are not traditional but they are a nice touch that brightens the dish. I happily dug into my bowl and enjoyed it with the rice. My leftovers the next couple of days were equally good. I will happily make this dish again and I think it is one you could serve to vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters with equal success.

It's Potluck week at I Heart Cooking Clubs so I am linking this Mark Bittman recipe there. 

I'm also sharing this post with the Weekend Cooking event  being hosted by Marg at The Adventures of An Intrepid Reader. It's a weekly event that is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share. You can see this week's post here.

Entries are due today and Claudia will be doing her roundup on the Cook the Books site soon after. If you missed this round and you like food and books and foodie books, join us for August/September when Debra of Eliot's Eats is hosting the novel Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown.



  1. That's a meal I could tuck into. Wish I had gotten the book as I have been wanting to read Ann Mah. We like her instant pot cookbook!

  2. Your success in making this vegetarian is impressive. I wonder if it would work with Beyond Beef Crumbles!

    be well... mae at

  3. Your dish looks really tasty. I've recently been craving Chinese food. Glad to have the vegan recipe.

  4. I enjoyed The Lost Vintage when I read it earlier this year so I was hoping to join in this time but this book turned out to be a bit hard to track down. Your dish looks delicious.

  5. I made a Thai curried tofu dish with coconut and ginger today and served it over red rice. It was a slow cooker recipe but I just did it on the stovetop. Yours looks delicious!

  6. I do want to dive right into this dish. Tofu is something we don't have often and I want to remedy that. I also want to read The Lost Vintage. Why was I thinking Kitchen Chinese was her first book?????

  7. Lovely recipe, Deb. You make me want to try that meat substitute. And I like the addition of fire-roasted tomatoes: great choice :)

  8. Reading books right now has been a great escape from everything going on. This sounds like a delicious tale. Love the looks of this dish. You certainly wouldn’t know the meat is plant-based. Looks yummy!


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