I come to praise Chinese mock meats, not to bury them
Many people are wary and cautious of the new and different, especially food. Acceptance often comes gingerly, with the new arrival initially forced to adopt a more familiar guise. Chinese food in the UK is a case in point. For many decades, it bore little resemblance to the dishes that Chinese people actually ate – both here and elsewhere – instead having more in common with chip shop fare. The many tastes and textures of Chinese food were flattened out and oversimplified to make it as familiar and unimposing as possible. In many smaller towns and villages across the country, this is still the case.
Vegan food finds itself in a similar sort of quandary. While at least some people want to eat less meat, a lot of them still miss it judging from the many vegan restaurants that serve imitation meats. The question is whether this mock meat fixation is just a transitionary phase or not. If it isn’t, then it’ll almost certainly be due to some sort of vicious feedback loop between punters willing to think that unconvincing vegan junk food staples are worth eating and restaurants pandering to that narrow, culinary Overton window.
At first glance, Tofu Vegan may look like yet another plant-based meat-imitating cash-in. Especially as it’s located in Islington, a prime area for money-chasing trend aping. But Tofu Vegan’s expansive menu of mock meat dishes, based around massaged and processed tofu and seitan, is actually a centuries-old Chinese culinary practice.
I’ve never found these Buddhist-influenced mock meats to be especially convincing, which is one reason why I’m sceptical that newer plant-based substitutes will ever taste like any meat dish that isn’t a burger or a hot dog. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be enjoyable in their own right and on their own terms.
Tofu Vegan’s Sichuanese and Dongbei-style dishes illustrate this point perfectly. Their Cantonese-ish dishes, less so.
Starters and side dishes at Tofu Vegan
Thin and wide sheets of sweet potato noodles were sweet and smooth, doused in a thin yet nutty sauce reminiscent of satay. They’re probably best enjoyed as a summer dish as they were served refreshingly cold.
Tofu Vegan’s version of man-and-wife slices replaces offal with textured slices of seitan, but the resulting mouthfeel was more like smooth mortadella or baloney than wrinkled, rippled offal. Still, the mildly spicy sauce and crisp julienned vegetables leant some flavour and textural snap respectively.
Crisp, brittle tubes of fried tofu skin came stuffed with minced tofu and veg brimming with moreishness. This was enhanced even further by the musky umami of the dipping sauce on the side. If you’ve ever despaired at the stodgy, oily, lumpen state of so many ‘spring rolls’ in this country, then this far lighter alternative will likely be a breath of fresh air.
Although billed as ‘lamb’, stir-fried pieces of tofu were less like meat and more into doing their own thing. The puffy, airy then gently chewy slices were texturally pleasing in their own right. What was more of a problem was the apologetic dusting of cumin and chilli. There needed to be far more of both for this dish to truly live up to its Dongbei-style antecedents.
Potato, cooked just enough for each spud chunk to have a yielding bite, came tossed with crunchy and colourful pieces of bell pepper. The real star, though, was the addition of aubergine. Pillowy soft in places, almost sinewy and tendon-like in others, it was a textural marvel. It was by far the best conveyor for this dish’s sticky, lightly sweet and moreish sauce.
Thin, reasonably supple wonton skins came stuffed with heavily minced tofu and mushrooms, but this filling had notably little mouthfeel. It might have gotten away with it, but the ‘mildly spicy’ dipping sauce failed to live up to even that milquetoast billing. Unsatisfying.
A similar pattern repeated itself with some of Tofu Vegan’s other dumplings. Xiao long bao had a similarly ineffectual tofu and mushroom filling and a surprisingly tame dipping vinegar. At least the skins were thick and soft, but that couldn’t really make up for the wilting nature of everything else.
That minced tofu and mushroom filling was especially unwelcome in the siu mai, where its loose sloppiness was as messy and unwholesome as it was unsatisfying. The kitchen’s choice to serve this deformed siu mai with the same dilapidated dipping vinegar as the xiao long bao was yet another inexplicably poor decision.
This dynasty of dismal dumplings was ended by a plate of Chengdu-style dumplings. Thick yet soft and supple skins were filled with a mix of crisp greens and a fluffy yet hearty tofu almost reminiscent of scrambled eggs. The dipping sauce had a cumulative spicy heat with a tangy aftertaste.
Main courses at Tofu Vegan
Mapo tofu is a classic Sichuanese dish already commonly available elsewhere with or without minced meat laced into the mix. The version obviously comes without, but it was hardly missed as the generous heap of firm and hearty tofu was satisfying enough. What wasn’t was the sauce which lacked both the numbing warmth of Sichuanese pepper and the more fiery heat of chilli oil. It was more sour and astringent instead, which may be suggestive of a broad bean paste gone astray. Whatever the cause, it meant this dish was only half-formed.
I’ve only ever encountered doufuhua before in desserts, but this shimmeringly soft, almost custard-like tofu turns up in plenty of savoury dishes too. Tofu Vegan’s version has the milky and silky soft medallions served in a sauce that balanced tanginess with a tingly spicy warmth. While the sauce was well-chosen, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well without such a slippery smooth doufuhua.
Sliced ‘fish’ in sizzling chilli oil was easily the best of Tofu Vegan’s mock fish dishes. The seitan slices were much like surimi in their smoothness and meaty denseness, while the wrapping/trim – possibly nori – added to the fish-like effect. They soaked up the sauce which brimmed with a spicy tang and a musky umami, making for a multi-layered delight of a dish.
Sizzling deep-fried ‘fish’ seemed primed to appeal to fans of anglicised takeaway Chinese food, but this didn’t count against it. Bready tofu came sheathed in a thin yet crisp coating, while the moreish sauce had a passing spicy heat to it along with a scattering of sweet onions. It was a crowd-pleasing dish, given the satiated nods from my dining companions Norfolk Dumpling and Irn Bruv, even though it couldn’t hope to match the many splendored charms of the sliced ‘fish’ dish above.
The quality of the deep-frying was far less consistent in the twice-cooked ‘fish’. Some pieces were far too oily, while others were just right allowing the batter’s crisp airiness to shine. The thin patties of minced and pounded tofu underneath had an uncanny resemblance to cheap fish finger filling. As someone who’s never been a fan of fish fingers, the ensuing sense of gentle dread was offset by the sauce. Dotted with chopped spring onions, its sharp sourness also acted as a counterbalance to the relative heaviness of the batter.
Sometimes what looks a bit like a duck may quack a bit like a duck, but doesn’t waddle or taste much like a duck. Even so, Tofu Vegan’s mock Peking-style bird (made using seitan and/or possibly tofu skin) was by no means a lame duck. The crispy skin snapped, crinkled and crackled away to reveal airy, puffy layers of moreishness. It was delectable enough that it didn’t really need the tangy hoi sin sauce, sprightly spring onions and on-point pancakes.
Desserts at Tofu Vegan
There were only a couple of desserts available at Tofu Vegan. While the vegan chocolate cake wasn’t as dry as it looked, it only had modest levels of moistness and bittersweetness to its name. Deep-fried pastry rolls stuffed with red bean paste came closest to that genre of Chinese desserts that Westerners tend to find so unpalatable. While the thin and crisp pastry shells were oil-free, the nutty and mildly sweet bean paste was more savoury than anything else which was enhanced further by the sesame seeds studding the pastry rolls. This savouriness alone was enough to make Norfolk Dumpling’s wee parochial face contort in confusion. It wasn’t bad, just not especially satisfying from a Western point of taste.
With its long history of refinement and iteration, Chinese mock meats does what many other plant-based meat substitutes can only dream of – it’s enjoyable in its own right, on its own terms, transcending fleshy comparisons.
I crave dishes such as Tofu Vegan’s fried tofu skins, doufuhua, sizzling ‘fish’ and crisp ‘duck’ as their processed bean curd and gluten hasn’t just been slapped together but finessed with sophisticated cooking and sauces. Many of these barnstormers take meat not as competition, but as inspiration. It’s somewhat analogous to fresh fruit and dried fruit – the latter is clearly derived from the former. They’re clearly not the same, but both remain immensely enjoyable.
All this makes Tofu Vegan’s duff dishes, such as many of its dumplings and its mapo tofu, all the more baffling. Their extortionately priced individual bowls of rice, at £2.40 a pop, also leaves a sour taste. The expansive menu could clearly do with some whittling down and rationalisation.
Still, if even a handful of London’s other vegan and vegetarian restaurants can develop similar levels of sophistication and finesse, then we’ll all be better off.
What to order: Doufuhua; sweet potato noodle sheets; sliced ‘fish’ in sizzling chilli oil; crispy stuffed tofu skin; vegetarian ‘duck’
What to skip: Most of the dumplings
Name: Tofu Vegan
Address: 105 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 1QN
Phone: 020 7916 3304
Opening Hours: Monday-Thursday noon-22.30. Friday-Saturday noon-22.45. Sunday noon-21.15.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks when shared between three: £38 approx.