Only in recent years have vegetarianism and its derivative regimens started to gain greater recognition here in France, a country whose culinary identity is inextricably bound to dishes that prominently feature meats and offal of all varieties. When I initially arrived here, most of the French people I met could not fathom the idea of omitting meat or dairy from their diet, and they considered meals served without animal protein as unsatiatingly incomplete. Friends visiting from the US who had dietary restrictions would have difficulty finding restaurants catering to their needs. But over the last few years, I‘ve noticed that meat-free as well as gluten-free dining options have become increasingly more common in Paris. I even met a French vegan in the master’s program that I just recently completed. I was astonished to learn that he had been vegan for the last few years, because I didn’t think that that eating lifestyle would ever be a thing in a country where cheese reigns supreme.
This releatively new wave of alternative eating options likely grew in part from expats courageous enough to launch businesses to fill such culinary gaps in Paris. Increased global digital social connections could have also played a role in propagating interest in meat-free diets. Though meat consumption in France has been steadily declining for the last 20+ years, this decrease parallels the significant rise in meat prices. Nonetheless, I still haven’t met any French converts completely eschewing meat, aside from my former classmate.
Given the French’s penchant for meat-based dishes, tofu likely figures close to the bottom of their list of ingredients for dinner ideas. Folks who don’t like tofu often tell me that it lacks taste and texture. As an ardent tofu enthusiast who always has blocks of it in the fridge, I’m always baffled when I hear that. Of course it doesn’t have any flavor if it’s not seasoned and prepared properly. I doubt a hunk of steak would taste like anything without seasoning and sauces to adorn it.
Chả hấp chay, which is a vegetarian version of a Vietnamese steamed egg meatloaf, has become a recent favorite of mine. The meat-based version that I often make is a mix of ground pork and eggs, and I either steam or bake the meatloaf in the oven. Even without meat though, this steamed tofu pâté does not compromise on flavor. The fermented bean curd gives the dish that satisfying umami gusto that meat dishes impart. The glaze topping of tapioca flour and annatto seed oil adds a semi-gelatinous layer that mimics an egg in texture and color. Served with steamed rice and a side of veggies, such as stir-fried water spinach, this makes for a satiating meal that is ideal for meatless Mondays.
Chả Hấp Chay | Steamed Tofu Pâté
- 250 g firm tofu
- ½ handful dried beanthread noodles
- ½ tbsp dried woodear mushrooms
- ½ carrot, julienned
- 1 small shallot, finely diced
- 1 tsp corn starch
- ½ tbsp fermented bean curd
- ¼ tsp salt (+/- to taste)
- ¼ tsp sugar
- ¼ tsp ground black pepper
- ½ tbsp tapioca flour
- ½ tbsp annatto seed oil
- In separate bowls, soak the beanthread noodles and woodear mushrooms in warm water. Once softened, drain the mushrooms and noodles and roughly chop them.
- Thoroughly drain the tofu from its liquid and place into a bowl. With a spoon, mash the tofu until it takes on a smooth, paste-like texture. Then, place the tofu in a cheesecloth and squeeze out any excess liquid.
- Return the tofu to a bowl and combine with the diced shallots, carrots, beanthread noodles, fermented bean curd, corn starch, salt, sugar, and pepper. Mix until it becomes a homogenous mixture, and add any additional salt if necessary. Transfer the mixture into a cocotte dish, spreading it evenly and pressing firmly into the dish. Steam for 20 minutes.
- While it is steaming, prepare the glaze topping by mixing 1 tablespoon of water with the tapioca flour and annatto seed oil. After 20 minutes of steaming, pour the glaze mixture evenly over the surface and continue steaming for another 6-7 minutes. Once the tofu pâté cools, the glaze topping will set.
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