Friday, August 20, 2010

Tofu Gua Bao (素刮包)

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Everyone loves comfort food that evokes good childhood memories. (Yes! Chalk that up as an universal truth -- along with "you'll never find what you are looking for at Trader Joe's even if you saw it yesterday" and "you'll always find a better parking spot after you've circled around for 15 minutes and parked a mile away.") Food memories can be so powerful. I know someone who made a taxi driver drive around the island of Macao in search of something that he ate when he was nine.

I grew up on a steady diet of Taiwanese street food from vendors that used to park right outside my elementary school. I ate a lot of junk food (as all kids do at some point). And a lot of pork and porky parts. (Mmm, porky parts...) Instead of giving up that warm and fuzzy feelings I get from eating a piece of braised pork belly, I try to make a vegetarian version of my childhood favorites so VB (and piggies) can share those warm and fuzzy feelings. Although I'm sure he has many more fond memories attached to pizza.

To that end, I made this Taiwanese gua bao with a piece of firm tofu instead of pork belly. You can easily substitute the tofu for pork belly and make a traditional gua bao. For those not in on the delicious awesomeness of this dish, gua bao is generally a piece of braised fatty pork that's stuffed into a steamed bun along with pickled mustard leaves, peanut powder and cilantro. You have to get the perfect bite with all the ingredients -- the soft sweet buns with the savory and tender pork, sweet peanut sauce, crunchy and sour mustard leaves and the freshness of cilantro. Excuse me. *wipe off drool* It's just not the same if you're missing a component.

To make the braised tofu (or pork, I won't judge), you'll need:
  • 1/4 cup of soy sauce
  • 3/4 cup of Chinese cooking wine
  • 2 tablespoons of Chinese rice vinegar
  • 2 to 3 small pieces of rock sugar candy or 1 1/2 teaspoon of sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups of water
  • 3 stalks of scallion, chopped to 2-inch pieces
  • 3 slices of ginger, about 1/4 to 1/8-inch slice
  • 3 star anise pods
  • 8 cloves
  • 1 block of firm tofu, portioned into 6 slices
  • 1 tablespoon of canola oil
  • 1 pinch of salt
You will also need:
  • 1 portion of cold water dough, divided into 6 pieces
  • cilantro leaves, torn off and don't bother chopping
  • 1/2 cup of shelled and blanched peanuts
  • 2 tablespoons of brown sugar
  • pickled mustard, chopped
Start by pouring canola oil into a medium pot over medium-high heat. Begin to lightly pan fry star anise pods, cloves and ginger until fragrant, about 2 to 5 minutes. Add scallion and cook for another minute. Add all the liquid (water, soy sauce, cooking wine, rice vinegar), sugar and salt. Bring liquid to boil, then reduce to simmer. Add tofu and allow it to simmer for at least hour. Stir and flip the tofu occasionally. If you're cooking pork belly, expect to braise for a bit longer so the meat is tender.

In the meantime, prepare dough and peanut sauce. To shape the dough, roll each piece into a ball and then flatten by hand into a disc. Roll disc to about 5-inch diameter in size. Fold in half. Slide a piece of waxed paper or parchment paper into the fold and between each bun. Steam for 20 minutes. I used a rice cooker; it makes life easier. To make peanut sauce, add peanuts and brown sugar to food processor. Pulse until the mixture becomes a fine granulated powder.

To serve, open the bun along the fold, add braised tofu, chopped pickled mustard, peanut powder and cilantro. So. Good. I have to say, it's better with pork because the fatty meat gives it another dimension, but my tofu version is a good imitation and gives me those familiar warm and fuzzy feelings.

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