In our cooking series Workaholics, we invite chefs, bartenders, and other personalities in the world of food and drink who are serious hustlers to share their tips and tricks for preparing quick, creative after-work meals. Every dish featured in Workaholics takes under 30 minutes to make, but without sacrificing any deliciousness—these are tried-and-tested recipes for the super-busy who also happen to have impeccable taste.
“Mapo tofu is such a great late-night drunk dish. It soaks up all the alcohol, it’s salty, fiery, and made without any animal products. However, I’m starting to get a bit sick of mapo tofu. I’ve been cooking this dish everyday!”
Chef Julian Denis has been cooking mapo tofu on repeat because I’m catching him in the closing weeks of his vegan Chinese pop-up’s residency at East London bar, Pamela. Taking over from taqueria Club Mexicana earlier this year, Mao Chow served meat-free, Sichuan-inspired dishes, including dan dan noodles and soy protein “pork” and chive dumplings. And of course, that melt-your-face-off tofu.
Los Angeles native Denis became obsessed with Chinese food when he moved to New York and worked under Jonathan Wu at innovative Chinese restaurant Fung Tu (now Nom Wah Tu), located on the border of Chinatown and the Lower East Side.
“Jonathan opened my eyes to how great Chinese food can be. Working there exposed me to seasonal Asian produce, traditional cooking techniques, and how to be analytic in the kitchen,” Denis explains. “I draw a lot of inspiration from the surrounding area, the dive bars, and late-night dumpling joints. I know I’m not Chinese and I don’t claim to be, but I have fallen in love with the food. I’ll never take credit for this cuisine, but I will try and pay respect to the people and culture it belongs to.”
This explains Mao Chow’s tagline, “inauthentic Chinese food,” and why some of its dishes, including the noodles topped with a vegan “egg” made using soy milk and yeast flakes in a process known as reverse spherification, might not be found at a traditional Chinese banquet.
“My goal isn’t to make ‘authentic’ Chinese food,” continues Denis. “I’m more interested in creating something delicious. Chinese food is the most underrated cuisine in the world and I want other people to be able to experience how brilliant it can be. It’s regional, seasonal, and has one of the most diverse food cultures on the planet. I think the more people we have pushing the cuisine forward the better it is for the whole.”
Denis is now on a mission to spread his love of Chinese food this side of the Atlantic, and after long days in the Mao Chow kitchen, his 30-minute mapo tofu recipe is an easy and hearty meal fix. I meet him at Pamela to learn how to prepare the speedy after-work (or after-party) dish.
Denis starts by finely dicing garlic, ginger, and spring onions, and throwing them into a well-oiled pot on the stove.
“In most Chinese cooking, it’s standard to start frying the base flavours of your dish such as garlic, ginger, and spring onions,” he says. “By lightly stir-frying, this brings out their natural aromas to get things going.”
Next, he adds homemade chili sauce to build the sauce element of the dish.
“We make our own chili oil blend, I can’t tell you the exact ingredients because it’s such a long recipe, but it’s got loads of good stuff like Sichuan peppers, fermented black bean, and crispy fried shallots, which add a lovely crunchy texture.” he says. “Although if you want to take a shortcut, you can just use any store-bought chili oil sauce it tastes just as good.”
After allowing this to cook for a minute or so, he adds soy protein to the pot. As the meat substitute soaks up the flavours, Denis gets to work on the star of the show: tofu.
He cuts a block of firm tofu into 3-centimetre cubes and blanches in water for a couple of minutes to help the pieces retain their shape. Next he sieves and dries the tofu, before adding it to the chili soy mix in the pan. Once everything is incorporated, Denis throws in one cup of water to deglaze the pan, along with two tablespoons of mushroom powder.
“The mushroom powder adds a real depth to it, a lot of people have this perception that all vegan food tastes bland, but there’s so many other ways you can add flavour,” he explains. “We use finely blended up shiitake mushrooms and optional dried kombu, which is essentially just fancy MSG and this provides all the umami flavours.”
As Denis stirs in the mushroom powder, he notices me staring at a message that has been taped to the wall of the kitchen. It reads, “BE HAPPY PAPI.”
“Oh yeah, that. Too many beers on a Saturday night,” he laughs sheepishly. “Guess it’s quite fitting that I’m actually making late-night drunk food.”
As we wait for the flavours to stew and the sauce to thicken, Denis starts steaming rice to serve alongside the dish and chops spring onions for garnish. He gives the pot one final stir and is then ready to plate up.
He spoons on a generous helping of sticky rice, followed by the spicy soy base and a heap of tofu, and tops with spring onions and sesame seeds.
“It’s hard to fuck up mapo tofu, you just throw everything into a pot and let it do its own thing,” Denis says. “This dish is all about turning it up to 11 and in a drunken state, you’ll love how numbing, aromatic, and tender this is: you’ll want to dive face first into it.”
Drunk or not, you’re going to want a second helping of this.