Several readers want to know why I never include tofu in my recipes. 'It's really delicious if you deep-fry it,' said a friend who thinks tofu worth the fridge space. 'Yes, but so is an old slipper,' I retorted, only very slightly exaggerating. Tofu, dou fu, bean curd, call the stuff what you will, has never exactly been on my shopping list. I regard this beige blubber as only marginally more interesting than pulverised cardboard. I must be wrong, of course. Fifty million Chinese cannot be wrong. Can they?
There are very few things I don't eat with total gusto and even fewer I won't eat at all, but tofu has always been filed under only-if-I-have-to. So, if I come to your place for lunch and you have made your famous noodle and bean curd special, then I will eat it, but only to avoid offending you. When it comes to bean curd, I go along with Ruby Wax, who said, in front of an assembled crowd of 1,000 foodies, 'Anyone who can eat this stuff has obviously never had a yeast infection.'
'You can do lots of things with it,' murmured my tofu-liking friend. But in my book, versatility comes second only to creativity in terms of attributes to be very, very suspicious of. And let's face it, even a J-cloth is versatile (you can wash up with it, use it to strain stock, make cream cheese or fold it to make a piping bag. It also makes a rather fetching headscarf.)
In her painstakingly researched new book, Sichuan Cookery (£20, Michael Joseph), the BBC's East Asia specialist Fuchsia Dunlop points out: 'In most Chendu markets, the standard white bean curd is available in several consistencies; there is also smoked bean curd in thin, firm slabs with a honey-brown surface, glossy chunks of firm bean curd which have been simmered in five spice broth, large squares of "bean-curd skin", sausage-shaped rolls of bean curd with an Edam-like texture, tender flower bean curd and ripe-smelling fermented bean curd in chilli sauce.' If I was wondering 'perhaps I just haven't eaten the right one yet' then, rest assured, it won't be that last one.
If you poke around in a Chinese grocer's shop here, you will find three or more kinds. There is always a 'firm' one that will stand up to long, slow braising or the heat of the deep-fryer; a smoked variety, which - like smoked cheese or garlic - simply tastes, well, smoked; and a wibbly-wobbly type that resembles blancmange. This last one is the tender, 'silken' variety that goes into bowls of broth. You either like slithery things in your mouth or you don't.
Not a mention of flavour yet, and with good reason. For most of us, bean curd is a texture thing. Flavour barely comes into it. Yet its very subtlety is highly prized in China (and indeed in Japan, where they got the idea from the Chinese in the 10th and 11th centuries). The purists' argument against the plastic-wrapped long-life bean curd sold in health-food shops and supermarkets is that this subtlety, like the flavour in long-life cream, is lost.
Until recently, bean curd labelled 'dou fu' in the Chinese manner was sold in a basin of water parked on the shop floor of every Chinese grocer's in London. Now it's all neat, heat-sealed packages, the block of bean curd sitting in water, without which it would dry out, much in the way feta cheese is sold. Bean curd's background is as cloudy as the Yangtze itself. According to Fuchsia Dunlop, the earliest written reference is in the 10th century, though all that is really known is that by 960AD it had become a popular food.
'It is much prized for its ability to soak up other flavours,' pipes in Mr Dou-fu fancier. Oh come on, is this really supposed to sway me? I have never quite got the point of foods whose raison d' tre is to soak up other flavours. A bath sponge will soak up flavour, for heaven's sake. Of course most bean-curd does have a flavour, and that flavour varies from one variety to another, but we are still talking subtle here.
Yet I reckon the Chinese know what they are talking about and I must give their beloved dou-fu (yet) another chance. I have been bean curding like mad the last few weeks. I now know for sure I really don't like the long-life khaki blocks with their brown-bread taste, or indeed the smoked versions. The marinated versions are pretty nasty, too. But silken bean curd is another matter. With the texture of a gently quivering custard, and the non-flavour of spring water, this is pleasant enough in small cubes in a bowl of steaming chicken broth. I would like it even more if it didn't remind me of cooked egg white - one of the very few things I cannot eat.
Bearing in mind I am rarely happier than when I have a wok in one hand and a bottle of cold beer in the other, I have been making some of the recipes in Fuchsia's book. Best of the lot was her recipe for jia chang dou fu, where firm bean curd is cooked with chilli-bean paste and pork and its brick-coloured sauce is spicy and deeply warming. Then I had a go at a salad from Vatcharin Bhumichitr's new book on Southeast Asian salads which, incidentally, has been in my kitchen all summer, filled as it is with my favourite notes of lime, ginger, mint and nam pla.
'I told you you'd be eating it by the end of the week,' said grinning Tofu Friend. 'Yes, but only when I have to.'
Fuchsia Dunlop's home-style bean curd
This is a cracking recipe from Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuan Cooking - savoury, hearty and a wee bit hot. In the published recipe, she omits to tells us what to do with the pork after we have sliced it, so, guessing, I stir-fried it in the oil until golden brown here and there before adding the chilli paste. Fuchsia suggests this is enough for 4 with two or three other dishes, but as it happened, two of us ate this for lunch, upping the pork to 350g - a huge success. Serves 4 with two or three other dishes as part of a Chinese meal.
500g block of bean curd
100g streaky pork
groundnut oil for deep-frying
2 tbsp chilli-bean paste
3 cloves of garlic, sliced, plus an equivalent amount of fresh ginger, also sliced
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 - 1 tsp light soy sauce
3 baby leeks or spring onions, sliced diagonally into 'horse-ears'
1/2 tsp potato flour mixed with 1 tsp cold water
Cut the bean curd into square slices 4-5cm long and about 1cm thick. Thinly slice the pork. Heat the oil for deep-frying to a high temperature.
Add the bean-curd slices in batches of 7 or 8 and deep-fry for a few minutes until puffy and golden (they should still be white and puffy inside). Drain well and set aside.
Heat 2 tbsp oil in a wok over a moderate heat. Add the chilli-bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is red and richly fragrant. Add the garlic and ginger and fry until they, too, are cooked and fragrant. Add the stock and bean curd and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down slightly, season with sugar and soy sauce to taste, and simmer for 3-4 minutes until the liquid is reduced and the bean curd has absorbed some of the flavours of the sauce.
Add the leeks or spring onions and stir briefly until just cooked. Finally, scatter the potato-flour mixture into the centre of the wok, stir until the sauce thickens, and turn on to a serving plate.
Vatcharin Bhumichitr's tahu goring
A wondrously textural salad from Vatch's Southeast Asian Salads (£14.99, Kyle Cathie) with masses of crunch and a little heat. Anyone who loves those hot, refreshing salads that turn up in Thailand and Vietnam will love this book. I can't stop cooking from it. I strayed from Vatch's recipe by cutting the cucumber into thick matchsticks, which gave even more crunch. Tamarind, which used to be such a pain to find, is now sold in dinky little sachets by Blue Dragon. You simply take out the blob of paste (it looks like something you might find stuck to the bottom of your shoe) and soak in warm water. It cost a matter of pence and is available from supermarkets and health-food shops. Serves 2.
oil for deep-frying
4 blocks soft bean curd, each about 5cm square
100g bean sprouts
1 cucumber, thinly sliced
for the dressing
2 large garlic cloves
3-4 small red chillies
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp tamarind water (see above)
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp light soy sauce
6 tbsp water
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
150g ground, roasted peanuts
Heat the oil for deep-frying until it is very hot, and deep-fry the bean-curd blocks till golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper and, when cool enough to handle, cut each block in half and then each half into 8 strips and set aside.
Tail the bean sprouts and place them in a salad bowl . Add the cucumber to the bowl and mix it with the bean sprouts. Place the bean-curd strips on top and set aside.
Prepare the dressing: in a mortar, pound together the garlic and chillies to a paste. Heat the oil in a wok or frying pan, add the paste, and stir well. Then add all the remaining ingredients in turn, stirring after each. Finally, stir in the peanuts well until a sauce forms.
Pour the sauce into a sauce bowl and serve alongside the salad.