The Circus Gardener's Kitchen

seasonal vegetarian recipes with a side helping of food politics

vegetable chow mein

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Britain leads the rest of the world in consumption of ready meals. Our trust in the manufacturers of processed foods and drinks would be touching if it was not so harmfully misplaced.

Time and again, those processed food and drink manufacturers have been shown to be far more concerned about maximising and protecting their profits than they are about the health of their customers.

Their most profitable ingredient is also their most deadly – sugar. Like salt, it is a cheap but unhealthy ingredient that can be used to bulk out cereals, yoghurts, cooking sauces, fizzy drinks, cakes, biscuits and, of course, ready meals.

In the early 1970s, a British scientist called John Yudkin published a book of his research into the impact of sugar in our diet. Called “Pure, White and Deadly”, Yudkin’s book set out the evidence linking sugar consumption with health problems, in particular coronary heart disease.

At the time Yudkin’s book was published, contradictory (and bogus) research by an American nutritionist called Ancel Keys had already laid the blame for coronary heart disease on saturated fats. Keys’ research suited the processed food manufacturers because it gave them an opportunity to replace expensive fats with cheaper sugars in their products, rebranding them as “low fat” and, by implication, “healthy”.

Yudkin’s research threatened this whole new edifice of “low fat” healthy food products because it showed quite clearly that sugar, the very product the manufacturers were using to replace fat, was far more deadly.

What is perhaps most instructive in the story of John Yudkin is the way the food industry responded to his book.

The World Sugar Research Organisation described “Pure White and Deadly” as “science fiction”. The British Sugar bureau put out a press release describing Yudkin’s findings as “emotional assertions”. Ancel Keys, whose own research stood to be discredited by Yudkin’s identification of sugar as the real enemy, engaged in a series of personal attacks on Yudkin, claiming for example that Yudkin’s research was a “mountain of nonsense” and accusing him of being a propagandist for the meat and dairy industries.

Other attacks came in more subtle form. Access to research facilities were suddenly withdrawn from Yudkin, and he also no longer received invitations to international scientific conferences. By the time of his death, in 1995, both John Yudkin and his research had become completely marginalised and discredited through the efforts of the processed food industry (“Pure White and Deadly” had even gone out of print).

Indeed, such was the ferocity of the food industry’s response that it undoubtedly discouraged other scientists from following up Yudkin’s research. Thanks to their aggressive protectionist actions, for the subsequent nearly 50 years the ingredients going into a processed food continued unchanged and unchallenged, despite the evidence of their danger to health.

In those intervening years we have seen an explosion in rates of obesity and diabetes in the UK, most of it thanks to the excessive sugar pumped into our food.

There are numerous other examples of these companies acting to protect their commercial interests whilst simultaneously preventing us from knowing what they are really up to – misleading labelling, misleading and targeted advertising, sponsorship of research designed to portray their products in a favourable light, marginalisation and discrediting of any research which threatens their business, and of course worming their way into government policy making.

The UK TV’s Channel 4 revealed a couple of years back that half of the sixteen members of the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition – the body which is there to advise the government on things like nutrition and obesity – had between them received millions of pounds of funding from the very food industry companies that are pumping us full of sugary products, including Tate & Lyle, Coca Cola, Mars and Unilever.

If recent history has taught us anything at all it is that we cannot trust the manufacturers of processed foods and drinks to do anything other than prioritise their profits, whatever the cost to our individual and collective health.

tofu blockpak choispring onionsvegan chow mein in wok

One of the most popular of the various ready meal ranges in the UK is a sugar-laden version of the classic Chinese dish chow mein.

Real chow mein is believed to have originated in China’s Guangdong province. It translates simply as “fried noodles” and is most commonly cooked with chicken, but here it works deliciously well with tofu. It’s a dish which is very easy to make from scratch, as this recipe shows. And of course, the most obvious advantage of cooking from scratch is that you know precisely what has gone into the food you are going to eat.

If you are one of those people who say they find tofu bland and uninteresting then this could be the dish to change your mind. Tofu is only bland when it is not prepared and cooked properly. It needs to be treated like a delicate sponge – squeezing out the water content first so that it will later soak up the beautiful flavours in the sauce.

vegetable chow mein


400 g block of tofu
1 carrot, cut into thin julienne strips
100 g bean sprouts
250 g pak choi, shredded
6 spring onions, finely sliced on the diagonal
4 tbsp groundnut oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 red chilli, de-seeded and finely chopped
3 cm piece fresh ginger, finely chopped
200 g rice noodles
60 ml dark soy sauce
60 ml light soy sauce
2 tbsp sesame oil
40 ml rice wine
40 ml maple syrup
2 tbsp cornflour


1. Cook the noodles in a large pan of boiling water according to packet instructions until just tender. Drain and rinse under cold water. Drain again, and tip back into the cooking pan with 1 tbsp sesame oil. Stir and set to one side.

2. Gently squeeze the block of tofu to release excess water. Wrap in several layers of kitchen paper and lay the block flat between two chopping boards. Place weights on the top board and leave for 20 minutes. This will help extract more water.

3. Make a sauce by whisking together the soy sauce, sesame oil, maple syrup, garlic, chilli, ginger and rice wine vinegar.

4. Take the pressed tofu from between the boards and carefully unwrap from the kitchen paper. Cut the block into pieces roughly 1-2 cm in size.

5. Put the cornflour in a bowl. Roll the pieces of tofu in the cornflour so that they are lightly coated. Set aside for 30 minutes. The cornflour will draw more moisture from the tofu and also helps give it a light, crispy edge.

6. Place a wok over a high heat. Add 2 tbsp of groundnut oil. Once the oil is hot, carefully add the tofu pieces to the wok. You may need to do this in two batches. Cook the tofu for 3-4 minutes per side, or until it is a light golden colour. Remove from the wok with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Set to one side.

7. Clean the wok and place back on a high heat. Add 2 tbsp groundnut oil. Once it is hot add the carrot. Stir fry for 2-3 minutes until the carrot is becoming tender, then add the pak choi, the bean sprouts and the spring onions. Stir fry for a further 3 minutes then add the noodles. Stir fry for a further 3 minutes. Finally, add the tofu and the sauce. The liquid will quickly bubble up. Stir it through the vegetables, tofu and noodles and cook for a further 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and serve immediately.

Categories: dairy free, gluten free, vegan

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28 replies

  1. So tempting. I actually spent an hour in the supermarket shopping for things that I wanted to chop together to make something yummy. And then I undid everything in exchange for olive oil smoked mozzarella and eggs. I’m just going to imagine eating that chow mein.

  2. This looks wonderful. Yummo!

  3. Tofu has always been a mystery to me. My vegetarian son will soon thank you for the advice. Interesting post. Knew about the sugar, but not Yudkin. Perhaps it’s time to resurrect that book.did you know that for some strange reason diet yoghurt has more salt in it than the full fat?

    • Hi Mary, I believe John Yudkin’s book is now back in print, thanks largely to the efforts of Professor Robert Lustig, a US endocrinologist who has also written and lectured extensively on the impact of sugar in processed foods. There is an excellent and truly mind blowing video of one of Lustig’s lectures on YouTube.
      I didn’t know that low-fat yoghurt contains more salt than full fat, but I am not surprised. Like sugar, salt is a cheap bulking agent that helps disguise the bland taste that is often left when the fat content of a product is reduced.

      • If you can’t get it on you tube, then it doesn’t exist. 🙂 Isn’t it great. I’ll look Professor Lustig up, thanks.

  4. Stir fried veg with tofu or nuts appears a few times a week from my kitchen, sometimes with noodles, other times on steamed rice. Nobody could complain that it takes too long to prepare. The best bit is that the ingredients are infinitely flexible according to the season. I can’t imagine how it must taste pre prepared, surely the veg would be soggy, the flavours homogenous.

    • What a healthy household you have! I have never eaten a ready meal but having seen what goes into it I have no doubt that it isn’t a patch on the home-cooked equivalent.

  5. Very nice Steve! So healthy and fresh:)

  6. This looks so yummy, perfect timing as I was looking for a new tofu recipe:) Have you any opinion on what is the safest healthiest (if any) on deep fat frying?

    • Hi Lesley, and thanks for commenting. Not sure what you have in mind, but you’d need to go with firm tofu, rather than silken tofu, for frying. Hope this helps. Steve

      • Sorry, but I was asking a general ? not relating to this recipe, about which oil for deep fat frying – do you deep fat fry at all?

      • Hi Lesley

        Thanks for the clarification. Yes, I do deep fry (as indeed my next recipe will demonstrate). My preferred oil is groundnut oil as it has a high catch point and does not add any discernible taste to the food being cooked in it. Rapeseed is another good one, but I no longer use that on principle since the UK government relaxed the EU ban on neonicotinoid pesticides last year to allow oil seed rape farmers to use it to spray their crops. Steve

  7. Oh thank you Steve I knew you would have finger on the pulse 🙂 that’s reassuring re Groundnut oil as it was my first choice for buying my first ever deep fat fryer! Not such good news about rapeseed oil as I have been a fan for some time., and have used in general frying, how disappointing. Thank you again.

  8. What a healthy recipe! Bookmarked to try soon. In India, traditionally we used cold-pressed oils; peanut, sesame, coconut or mustard. Then came the “refined” oil craze. Now after having nearly decimated our traditional oil making facilities we are back to “organic cold pressed” oils. 🙂

    Do you know that the left over seed after the oil has been extracted is very rich in protein and helps patients in recovery, especially after surgery etc..

    • Hi Aruna and thank you for commenting. I am heartened to learn that traditional cold pressed oils are undergoing a revival in India. How interesting, too, that the seed husks can be put to such valuable use. Steve

  9. This was super delicious! I made it the same day I saw the recipe, and we ate it all. Made it again the next day, and it was equally yummy. I am vegetarian, my family is not but son and daughter liked it as well.

  10. Reblogged this on Blog of a Mad Black Woman and commented:


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