The Circus Gardener's Kitchen

seasonal vegetarian recipes with a side helping of food politics

Szechuan-style tofu with spring onion

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Following on from the shocking study into insect population decline published by German scientists earlier this year, a newly published study from France has shown a similarly massive fall in bird numbers.

The French survey, which looked at data spanning 15 years, found that bird numbers had fallen by a third in that time. Some species, such as the once-common meadow pipit have seen their numbers decline by up to 70 per cent. One of the authors of the report described their findings as “catastrophic”.

There is a very clear link between the results of the two surveys. Birds rely upon insects for food. As so many insects have disappeared in recent years, it is hardly surprising that wildlife higher up the food chain is suffering.

Both studies showed that the loss of bird and insect numbers has accelerated in recent years.

At the heart of the problem is pesticide use, a key component of industrialised agriculture. In France, 75,000 tonnes of the stuff was used on crops in 2014, the last year for which figures are available. It is good to see the French government have since set a target to reduce pesticide use by 50% by 2020, but even this is too modest given the scale of the damage these chemicals are causing.

Pesticide usage figures for the UK are harder to come by, but it is a fact that here, too, we have seen a significant decline in bird numbers over recent years.

If our governments won’t act decisively then we must. Every time we purchase food that has been produced using pesticides we are effectively voting for the status quo – for an agricultural system that destroys the environment and kills off wildlife.

Conversely, each time we purchase food that has been grown organically and sustainably we are voting for the change our governments are not prepared to make, and for the only change that will make a difference in the long term.

I am very fond of Szechuan cuisine, which is generally a little more hot and spicy than other Chinese regional cooking.

This particular recipe is my vegan version of a classic dish called mapo doufu. Usually containing minced pork or beef, the dish apparently translates, rather unappetisingly, as “pockmarked grandma’s bean curd”.

Don’t let that put you off. The only slightly complicated part of the process is making the infused oil. The rest is really very simple, yet still produces an intensely tasty and satisfying dish.

Serve with steamed Thai jasmine rice and some wok-fried pak choi.

Szechuan-style tofu with spring onion


400 g block of firm tofu, cut into 2cm cubes
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
4 spring onions, white and green parts, sliced diagonally
1 tbsp corn flour
3 tbsp fermented black bean paste
2 tbsp soy sauce
150 ml gluten-free vegetable stock

for the oil

125 ml groundnut oil
2 star anise
1 tsp Szechuan peppercorns
1 tsp dried chillies
1 tbsp toasted sesame oil


1. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Remove from the heat and set to one side while you make the spicy oil.

2. Place a wok over a high heat. Add the oil and once it is hot enough to start shimmering add the star anise, the Szechuan peppercorns and the chilli flakes and stir to combine. Keep on a high heat for thirty seconds then remove from the heat. Sir in the sesame oil and leave to cool for a few minutes before straining the oil through a muslin cloth placed over a fine sieve. This makes a little more oil than you need for this recipe, but the rest can be kept in a sealed container to be used again.

3. Carefully place the tofu cubes into the pan of hot, salted water. This will help to soften it. After five minutes, retrieve the tofu with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

4. Place a wok over a high heat. As soon as it begins to smoke add three tablespoons of the prepared oil. Once the oil starts to shimmer, add the garlic. Cook, stirring continuously for two minutes, making sure the garlic does not burn. Next, reduce the heat and add the corn flour and fermented black bean paste and stir vigorously to combine. Stir in the stock, followed by the drained tofu cubes and the spring onion. Cook for a further 1-2 minutes or until the sauce has thickened.

5. Serve immediately.

Categories: dairy free, gluten free, vegan


8 replies

  1. Looks tasty

  2. Looks delicious. I assume you used firm tofu?

  3. Modern, bloody agriculture and its bloody chemicals!. And what about the practise of burning acres and acres of canola stubble et al and not ploughing in into the ground. I could go on and on but I’ll leave it to you and Rachel Carson. But I must admit that we haven’t seen a noticeable drop in bird numbers in Australia. Now to duck down and get some hard tofu.

  4. So eloquently put – again – your closing paragraph, The Circus Gardner, thank you. And yes, change only ever comes from the bottom, never from the top: every till slip matters! 🙂

  5. I love to read your insights. And your recipes. So well put together!

    We actually have our very own Szechuanpepper in the garden (middle european climate) It’s a hell of a lot work to seperate the black seeds from the shell, but worthwhile.


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