There’s nothing better for a night when you’re feeling a bit crappy than a full on assault on the senses. This delivers that attack in spades. Chilli heat, silken aubergines and smoky tofu. All those strong flavours maintaining a fragile truce.
Blues are banished – along with any remaining subtle taste buds – in the pungent, silky-smooth smoky chilli miasma. Each mouthful rolling as slippery worm like noodles meet wobbly collapsing aubergines and firm ember-like cubes of tofu.
The trick is to keep that balance – not too much chilli or tofu. And you need something to provide as underlying unity. Here’s it’s the gently umami-ish ‘shrooms and the pungent-astringent-salty marriage of garlic, ginger and dark soy that lay down the bass line under the chilli kicks and smoky hits.
The first thing you get is the smooth, almost cool texture of the noodles and aubergines. Then the tangy-umami of dark soy and chewy smoky overtones from the tofu coat your mouth. Finally the chilli heat gently builds up as you finish chewing, leaving an ember like heat in your mouth after you swallow.
This is food that feels exotic, almost erotic, to eat – marrying all those strong tastes and sensations with soft decadent textures. It’s something you can imagine being consumed on the far western reaches of the Great Wall as soldiers looked out over empty dark wastes for cold eyed invaders.
Or maybe in back street opium dens in French Indochina as spies battled in dark alleys and shadowy corners. Don’t you just love food that stimulates your imagination?
If you’re going to drink with it, have something like reisling with a round taste and decent acidity. One from Australia, Chille or Pfalz maybe. Another option would be a smooth fruity low-tannin red, a grenache or maybe a really fruity Chillean pinot noir. Something that will find it’s way around and through the chilli, smoky tastes without clashing. I drank Wolf riesling from Dr Loosen in Pfalz.
Aubergine and tofu hot pot
Serves four with another couple of dishes or two on its own
This dish started life as fish flavoured aubergine from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan Cookery – one of my favourite cookbooks, but evolved as I found some tofu in the local shop and mushrooms that needed finishing in the fridge.
2 small aubergines
125g smoked tofu
a handful of shitake or chestnut mushrooms
2 cloves garlic
1 birds eye chilli
.5 tsp dark soy
2 tblsp chilli bean paste
2 spring onions
Pour oil into a wok or wide based saucepan until it forms a pool as deep as your thumb joint. Cut the aubergines into bite sized chunks. Heat the oil until it is shimmering and very hot.
Drop the aubergine pieces (gently!) into the oil in batches and cook for a couple of minutes until they start to go golden brown, turning them as they bubble away. Take each batch out and drain them on kitchen towel.
Cut the tofu into small bite sized cubes, the mushrooms into quarters and finely slice the garlic, ginger, spring onions and chilli (deseeding it first).
Pour off most of the oil from the wok leaving about two tablespoons in the bottom and put the heat up high. Stir and fry the tofu for a three minutes or so, until it starts to colour at the edges.
Chuck in the mushrooms, stir and fry for another couple of minutes. Add the chlli bean paste and stir until the oil turns red
Throw in the ginger, garlic and chilli, stir a couple of times. As the chilli starts to hit your mouth and the scent of garlic rises from the wok, chuck in the aubergines and white parts of the spring onion, reserving the dark green ringlets. Then add the water and soy sauce stirring as the sauce reduces.
Once the sauce is about a third of its original volume add the udon noodles, stir and fry for about three minutes until they are heated through and thoroughly coated.
Season with the green spring onion pieces and a little sesame oil before serving. Eat and enjoy the heat.