What is Shan Tofu?
Tofu entered the kitchens and cultural-consciousness of the white western world largely as a curdled-soy-milk-based protein replacement of the 1960s culinary counter-culture. It was a culture that combined the tenets of various then-radical health-food movements with then-unfamiliar Asian and Middle-Eastern ingredients like brown rice, miso and yogurt, and a conviction that eating could be a political act, especially in choosing not to eat meat. Tofu. Hippie food.
Shan tofu is tofu of a different variety. It is made from chickpea flour (also known as Besan or gram flour), water, salt, and a little turmeric for colour, if you’re feeling fancy. It has a smooth, silky texture and a deeper, nuttier flavour than soy-based tofu. It is firm enough to be substantial, and maintains its silky, gelatinous texture well when saved as leftovers. Shan, or chickpea, tofu is also great for anyone who is allergic to, or is otherwise avoiding, soy. It is often used as the main ingredient of a salad - like this one - or deep fried and eaten as a snack.
Myanmar and Shan Cuisine
The word “Shan” refers to a group of indigenous peoples that make up the majority population of what is now known as the Shan state of North-East Myanmar (formerly Burma), that borders China, Laos and Thailand. Shan state is a geopolitical designation, an imaginary dividing line imposed around a territory containing many smaller groups of Shan peoples and other ethnic minorities by the British during a colonial occupation that began in the late 1800s and ended in 1948. Borders are often relics of former colonial rule and are, consequently, artificial and arbitrary, as untrustworthy in their value as symbols as they are inescapable in their political consequence. They obfuscate the ethnic, religious and cultural diversity that exists both within and across them. Shan cuisine, like the more general category of Burmese cuisine, is made of many culinary influences including those from the neighbouring countries of China, India and Thailand - themselves regions possessed of vastly diverse cuisines.
I’ve never been to Burma. What I gather from Burmese cookbooks is that its salads tend to consist of one main ingredient, a dressing, and little else. Meals themselves are commonly structured around a main dish - a curry or noodle soup - rice, and a big selection of other small dishes, all brought to the table at once, including a variety of single-ingredient salads and various condiments. If you are likewise unfamiliar with this style of eating, google images of a Burmese meal. You will see sprawling tables of small bowls, each filled with a different dish. Its an appealing way to eat - but one that seems intimidatingly unmanageable for the average weekday meal. At least, that is, for anyone with a meat-and-potatoes culinary comfort zone, like me.
And so I have made some changes to the traditional versions of this salad that I have tried. I’ve added a substantial amount of cabbage and greens, making the Shan tofu one ingredient and one texture among many, rather than the sole focus of the dish. This is something I’m likely to cook for myself on an average weeknight and incorporate into my repertoire as opposed to reserving it for a special “I’m cooking a Burmese feast” kitchen project. I don’t feel like I have time to make several small dishes for dinner, or perhaps I just lack the necessary foresight and organizational skills. In any case, for me, turning Shan tofu salad into a stand-alone meal makes its Burmese flavours and ingredients more accessible.
Shan Tofu Salad
This salad is adapted from the more-traditional versions found in Naomi Duguid’s Burma and Desmond Tan and Kate Leahy’s Burma Superstar. I loved Duguid’s salad, but I wanted to make it more substantial. Sour flavours - balanced with heat and funk - are one of the draws of Burmese cuisine. When I tried the Shan tofu salad from Burmese Superstar I was blown away by the complexity of its sour flavours. While I had been relying on lime juice and vinegar for that sour punch in earlier versions of this salad, Burma Superstar’s version uses both a tamarind dressing and raw onion slices quick-pickled in lime juice. I incorporated the tamarind dressing and raw onion technique into my version below, though I’ve replaced the onion with the more subtle shallot.
Burmese-Inspired Shan Tofu Salad (Tohu Thoke)
Silky-smooth creamy chickpea tofu, crunchy cabbage and peanuts, sour and bright tamarind dressing, and sweet caramelized shallots. This Burmese-inspired chickpea tofu salad, meant to be eaten cold, is refreshing but substantial enough to be a full meal. Once you prep a few items on the stovetop (that can be done ahead and saved for other uses), it is quick to throw together and there is no need to turn on the oven! You can serve this salad as a side, but I like to eat it as a stand-alone meal for lunch or a summer dinner.
Serves: 3-4 as a main dish
For the Shan Tofu:
- 1 cup chickpea flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 3 cups water
For the Dressing:
- 3/4 cup hot water
- 2 1/2 ounces tamarind pulp
- 1 teaspoon grated ginger
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
For the Salad:
- 1 1/4 cups canola oil
- 2 cups thinly sliced (on a mandoline) shallots
- 1/2 Shan Tofu Recipe
- Canola oil, for frying
- 1/2 Teaspoon dried chile flakes
- 1 bunch greens (chard, kale, spinach etc.), washed and chopped into thin strips.
- 4 handfuls of Peanuts, chopped
- 1/2 cup chopped Cilantro
- 1/3 – ½ small cabbage, shredded on a mandoline (about 2 - 2 1/2 cups)
- Place 1/4 cup of the raw sliced shallots into a small bowl. Squeeze lime over the top. Stir to coat. Set aside.
- CARAMELIZE SHALLOTS: Place a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl or glass measuring cup. Line a large plate with paper towels. Set both aside. In a large saucepan, heat canola oil over medium heat. Drop a shallot into the oil, if bubbles immediately form around the shallot the oil is hot enough. Carefully lower the rest of the shallots into the oil. Lower the heat to low and fry, stirring frequently so they do not burn, until shallots are deep golden brown (30-40 minutes). Pour the shallots and oil through the fine mesh strainer, separating the shallots from the oil. Set the shallot oil aside and arrange the shallots in a single layer on the paper-towel lined plate. They will crisp as they cool. You will have more oil than you need, store the remaining shallot oil in the refrigerator for up to two months and use as you would regular canola oil. Any leftover fried shallots will keep for one month in the refrigerator.
- MAKE SHAN TOFU. While the shallots are frying, coat an 8X4 inch loaf pan in a thin layer of oil. Sift the chickpea flour, salt, turmeric into a medium bowl. Add 1 cup of the water, whisk together and allow to sit for 10 minutes. Scrape flour mixture into a medium pot. Turn heat to low and stir in the remaining 2 cups of water. Stir continuously, making sure it does not stick to the bottom of the pot, until the mixture thickens - about 5-8 minutes. Pour tofu mixture into the prepared loaf pan, smooth top with the back of a spoon or an offset spatula. Allow to sit at room temperature as shallots finish cooking, until set. Tofu can be made 1-2 days ahead and will keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
- MAKE DRESSING: place tamarind pulp into a small bowl. Pour the hot water on top. Allow to soak for 10 minutes. As the tamarind pulp soaks, use a spoon to break it up into the water. Pour through a fine mesh strainer, leaving the tamarind solids behind. Add the ginger, garlic, sugar and salt. This will make more dressing than you will need for one salad. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to one week.
- SAUTE GREENS: heat a tablespoon of canola oil over medium heat. Add greens, season with salt and pepper and sautee just until wilted, about 2-3 minutes. Set Aside.
- ASSEMBLE SALAD: Unmold the chickpea tofu. Divide in half. Save one half for another use (like this deep fried tofu snack) and slice the other half thinly. In a large bowl, toss together the Shan tofu, caramelized and raw shallots with lime juice, greens, cabbage, chile flakes, cilantro, peanuts, 3 tablespoons of the shallot oil, and 2 tablespoons of the dressing. Taste and adjust seasoning or add more dressing if necessary. Serve salad at room temperature or cold.