This satisfying side dish or humble meal with rice is not the most interesting food I’ve eaten during my travels in Taiwan. Still, it has plenty of virtues that I hold close to heart: few ingredients, lots of plant-based protein, and it’s incredibly quick, and impossibly cheap to prepare. I hardly needed to go across the globe to access the recipe for this typical Taiwanese dish, however; it’s been a favorite of mine since I was a child.
My grandfather was fond of making stir-fried tofu-gan (firm, pressed blocks of tofu steeped in a five-spice broth) with little edamame beans — probably for the exact same reasons, in those hard times. My mom makes it for nostalgia’s sake, as does my uncle, who’s quasi-vegetarian (most of the time). I’ve always enjoyed the subtle contrast of textures in it, from the crisp, browned surfaces of the tofu to the slippery layers of skin on the edamame beans. With this, as well as zings of fresh ginger and red chilies, it’s easy to see why it’s so popular among both home cooks and restaurants in Taiwan.
Setting up post for my last few days in Taiwan in the small city of Chungli, it was the first thing I cooked in more than two weeks. It was also an unplanned accident after a market run. The intention had been to grab a bunch of ingredients to merely photograph, but I ended up cooking with most of the “props” afterwards. So I’d gotten some fresh, shelled edamame beans; these are pale green and soft rather than the hard, off-white beads of the soybean in their mature state. They’re commonly served at this stage steamed in the pod at Japanese restaurants. But, you can find them frozen at most Asian groceries, still in their fuzzy pods or not.
You can also be sure to find some spiced tofu, or tofu-gan at most Asian markets, sometimes called “five spice tofu” if Roman characters are present on the package. If not, it looks exactly like square blocks of firm tofu, only stained tan to deep espresso in color. You can also just use plain, extra-firm pressed tofu blocks instead to cube up and season on the pan all the same.
I love how fresh ginger makes even the most boring foods come alive. I’ve used it two ways in this dish, to flavor the oil when it initially heats in the pan, and to garnish the finished dish with at the end. Young ginger works much better for the latter — these tender, light pink-colored roots are much more palatable when eaten raw. But if you can’t find any, finely julienne some of the old ginger in this step instead.
There are too many different types of chili peppers to even begin to list some of those that will work fine here. But a medium-hot, small, and preferably bright red (for aesthetics) variety is ideal. And I’m not sure what the one I’ve used is called. You can muddy up these fresh flavors by adding too much soy sauce in the pan, or dabs of jarred sauces instead or in addition to this. You can add bits of ground pork at the beginning of making the dish, for extra flavor, too. But pared down to these essential spices, the tofu and edamame were tasty yet light enough to eat without rice.
Because it keeps well at room-temperature, it’s a common find in bento boxes. And this version being totally meat-free, it’s Buddha-approved, too. Try the leftovers the next day, chilled straight from the fridge. That really brings me back.
Stir-Fried Tofu and Edamame with Ginger and Chilies
(makes 2-3 servings)
6 oz. pressed tofu, or five spice-braised tofu-gan, cut to 1/4″ cubes
1 cup shelled edamame beans, frozen or fresh
1 1/2″ knob fresh ginger (preferably young ginger), peeled and finely julienned
2-3 small, medium-hot chilies, seeded and finely sliced
about 2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Bring a small pot of salted water to boil. Add the edamame beans, and boil for 5 minutes. Drain and reserve about 1/4 cup of the cooking water.
Heat a large pan or wok with the oil and add about 3/4 of the ginger and the chilies when hot. Stir for a few seconds, and once oil is fragrant, add the tofu cubes and stir. Let stand a few moments in between stirs to brown each side, about 3-4 minutes. Add the soy sauce and stir until evaporated in the pan. Add the edamame beans and about 2 tablespoon of its cooking water. Stir another minute, adding more water if desired for a very slight, thin sauce. Serve with the remaining julienned ginger as garnish.
(for 2 servings)
note: prices have been estimated for US grocery standards
6 oz. tofu: $2.00
1 cup shelled edamame: $0.75
1 1/2″ piece fresh ginger: $0.25
3 small chilies: $0.25
2 tsp soy sauce, 2 Tb vegetable oil: $0.25
Three brownie points: This is the kind of dish that you could easily fit into any family-style spread for the table. But alone, it’s not bad as a one-dish meal. With rice, you’ll fill up while getting plenty of protein (both from the beans and tofu), fiber, and heart-healthy carbs. The fresh ginger will help boost your circulation, especially helpful as we head into winter, while the heat from the chilies might just help clear your sinuses.
Six brownie points: Best bet is to get a locally-made, artisanal tofu (the farmers at D&J Organics at the Union Square Greenmarket make some) to lower your carbon emissions in this dish, since it’s fresh and pure. Edamame beans are tougher to find freshly shelled from an organic source, but keep an eye out for them in the spring, when they’re in season, to freeze yourself. In either case, they’re both plant-based foods that grow plentifully with a lower cost to the environment than most protein sources.