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How to “vegan-ize” the most iconic Sichuan dish!

How to “vegan-ize” the most iconic Sichuan dish! Let’s take some mushrooms, a wok, and some curiosity. Innovation beyond tradition. Vegan mapo doufu is now served.

Meat? No thanks. More and more young Chinese are deciding to approach the vegetarian diet, driven by a greater sensitivity towards environmental issues. About 5% of the Chinese population claims to be vegetarian, nearly 72 million people who do not eat meat. At one time this choice was made mainly for cultural and religious reasons. Today, people become vegetarians also to rediscover a healthier, safer lifestyle that helps reduce the environmental impact of the meat and fishing industry. 

But vegetarianism in China is nothing new. Contrary to popular belief, plant-based diets existed in the Middle Kingdom long before Buddhism came to the country. According to most historians, it is during the period of the Warring States (453 BC-221 BC) that the cult of vegetarianism began to take hold in China, spurred by the new approach to nature preached by Daoism. Avoiding meat and fish meant reaching a higher stage of purity, perfect for meditation and contemplation. Later, under the Han dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), Buddhism also began to spread in China, bringing with it the values of compassion towards all living beings. The two schools gave birth to new forms of cuisine, known in China under the definition of 寺院 菜 siyuàn cài, “the dishes of the temple”. Back then fake meats were made from ingredients such as beans, gluten, root vegetables and mushrooms.

Let’s see what happened if we take mapo doufu, one of the most iconic dishes in Sichuan cuisine and we make a vegan version of it. For the uninitiated, mapo doufu is a dish consisting of soft tofu, tingly sauce, fermented black, and broad beans, and of course minced spicy meat. Making a simplified version from scratch isn’t very difficult, but today we’re trying to rebuild the dish from the ground up using ingredients that are 100% vegan friendly. The dish that finally came up with is so darn good that it may well replace the actual “meaty” version and is becoming quite popular in China too.

WHAT MAKES MAPO? – There are five real elements in mapo doufu: The tofu itself, the aromatics, the broth/sauce, the oil layer, and the beef. Today we are going to use dried mushrooms instead of meat. What? No meat in mapo doufu? Yes, it is, today we are going beyond the borders, exploring new tastes, but still in the path of Sichuanese tradition. And before you ask, it could work!

For the broth, we began by looking back at the soy-mushroom broth people in Asia developed for their “lamian”. The addition of sweet elements was out of place in our mapo doufu, but we loved the idea of using a mix of both Asian and Western mushrooms to bring complexity and depth to its aroma. We settled on a mix of the dried wood ear, dried morel, and dried, why not, porcini mushrooms. 

VEGAN MAPO? IT COULD WORK – Once the mushrooms were re-hydrated and the resultant broth drained off, we added soy sauce and rice wine, along with a bit of cornstarch. The richness and savoriness were not quite high enough, and we wanted something with a bit more chew texturewise. So, what could we do now? There is a cooking technique in Sichuan called dry frying.

Dry-frying means covering meat with oil and cooking it until it is nearly dehydrated on the exterior. The result is the meat with a much chewier, denser texture, as well as a more open structure that allows it to soak up sauce and flavor more easily. Well, dry-frying is traditionally used mostly for meat, but we decided to use this on other food. And the result was amazing.

First, we started by chopping a whole bunch of fresh button mushrooms in a food processor, then put them in a wok with oil, turned on the heat, stirring the mushrooms as they cooked until nearly all their moisture had evaporated and they were deeply browned.

Finally, we strained the mushrooms, but we need to add flavor and texture to a vegan-ized Chinese dish. And here the tradition came up once again. We returned that mushroom oil to the wok, added Sichuan peppercorns and dried chilies, heated them to further infuse the oil, then used that oil to stir fry our aromatics, before adding chili bean paste and our mushroom broth mixture. 

In the end, we folded in our soft tofu, finishing off the dish with a drizzle of chili oil and a sprinkle of more Sichuan peppercorns and scallions.

As we mentioned before, the resulting dish is going to end up replacing the authentic version in the future whenever we want to try a new version of this iconic dish. Don’t believe us? There’s an easy way for you to find out for yourself.