Food has always been a big part of Chinese culture, but never more so than at Chinese New Year. Although officially kicking off on the 8th of February, feasting and celebrating is already evident in major cities across the world. Lanterns of gold and red, as well as paper cut outs of this year's symbol, the monkey, decorate restaurants, shops and homes.
But this is all just so much window dressing. The real event is the food. Masses of it. Gleaming, steaming mounds of it.
Today's recipe to celebrate Chinese New Year is a vegetarian redux of a popular Sichuan region street food.
The name 'dan dan' refers to the type of poles used to carry the pots of noodles and spicy broth along the street - pedlar's noodles. Usually these contain spicy minced pork (Sichuan is known for its fiery, nose-running cuisine), but with just a few adjustments, plain tofu makes a fantastic substitute - healthier too. My family actually thought these Dan Dan noodles had pork in it. I had to tell them at least twice that it was crumbled and spiced tofu. That might freak some of you out, but I think it was more that this dish isn't bland (which tofu is unless you tinker with it), and I did a rather convincing job with my crumbling. If you have a sceptical family, perhaps go with a half and half approach of organic, free-range pork mince and organic tofu. Or even best-quality minced chicken or turkey.
My recipe is also a lot less spicy and oily than more traditional ones. Loads more vegetables too. If you want to ramp up the fire, add chilli oil and lay on the Sichuan pepper for an electric shock treatment to your nose and tongue.
That can't be a bad proposition on a February evening, can it?
Very Veggie Dan Dan Noodles
A soupy, slurpy mix of spiralised vegetable noodles, wheat or rice noodles, fragrant aromatics and heart-healthy tofu and cashews. Use all vegetable noodles if you like. Amounts of everything in this western, Chinese-style recipe are pretty flexible so go with what you have - and feel free to play with the spicing. You can even add a dollop of creamy peanut butter or cashew butter to the broth - a slightly Taiwanese twist.
This looks a bit ingredient-heavy but it is simple and straightforward. If I remember I like to freeze my tofu, defrost it overnight in the fridge, and then squeeze out all of the liquid. Freezing changes the texture of the tofu - makes it very sponge-like (it actually looks like a sponge too) and better able to suck up all of the flavours. But usually I forget to do this.
150g plain organic tofu, pressed of liquid then crumbled until the texture of chunky mince
1 tsp toasted fennel seeds, crushed
2 tsp five-spice powder
1 tsp toasted Sichuan peppercorns, crushed (optional)
1 'nest' of wholewheat or brown rice noodles
1 tsp sesame oil, plus extra for serving if liked
600ml light vegetable stock or water
1 tsp rice vinegar (more to taste)
2 tsp soy sauce/tamari sauce (more to taste)
1 tbsp + 1 tsp coconut oil or rapeseed oil, divided use
2 garlic cloves, minced or sliced
3 spring onions, sliced
1 red chilli, sliced (optional)
Handful of raw cashews
1 'thumb' of gingerroot, peeled and finely chopped
1 tsp (+) brown sugar
1 small-medium carrot
1 small courgette/zucchini or 6" piece of mooli
100g pak choi, choi sum or broccoli, sliced (I used baby pak choi)
1/3 red pepper, cored and sliced
Leaf coriander, fermented chilli soy beans or sweet fermented soy beans - to garnish, optional
1. Mix the crumbled tofu with the fennel seeds, five-spice powder and Sichuan pepper (if using). Set aside.
2. Cook the noodles in the stock or water. Drain the noodles and keep the liquid. Dress the noodles with the sesame oil and set aside, covered. Pour the water/stock back in the pan. Add the rice vinegar and soy sauce to the liquid. Taste and adjust to your liking; keep hot.
3. In a small wok or a frying pan, heat the oil over a medium flame. Add the garlic, spring onions, cashews and ginger. Stir-fry until the garlic and onion are softened, then add a good pinch of sugar - this helps to balance the flavours but won't make things sweet. You can add more later if you like. Turn up the heat, make a well in the centre of the pan and add a dash more oil (1 tsp); add the crumbled tofu and toss around in all of the ingredients. Let the tofu heat through and the cashews start browning. Turn off the heat and cover.
4. Spiralise or julienne the carrot and courgette. Set aside.
5. Pop some warm sesame oil noodles into each bowl; ladle over the broth - adding the pak choi and red pepper too. Add in the delicate whisps of carrot and courgette and top with the tofu-cashew vegetables. Add on coriander and extra seasoning like fermented chilli soy beans or even sweet chilli sauce. Serve immediately.