Sichuan tofu and onion soup

For Christmas, I got the wife "Land of Plenty" by Fuchsia Dunlop. This is widely reputed to be the most accessible and best cookbook on regional Chinese cooking. I know, I know. It's sort of a bowling ball present.

Tonight, she asked me to make something from the book. S1 wanted a soup for dinner. There was a cake of tofu lying in the fridge that dated to last month's visit to Cao Nguyen's (Oklahoma City's Vietnamese grocery store). I found a recipe for fish-fragrant tofu in the book and decided to modify the recipe to be a soup. After all, it called for broth and if I didn't reduce it, it would become a soup. But then, the recipe called for pickled chili paste. Our pantry is well-stocked, but not that well stocked. So, substituted pickled chili paste with a combination of sambal oelek and rice vinegar. No scallions either -- it's been a month since our last visit to Cao Nguyen's. So, substituted onions and cilantro instead. The recipe also called for deep-fried tofu. And we're never going to buy that, so I used instructions from a previous recipe to create "bear's paw tofu". With all these modifications, I don't think it's an authentic Sichuan recipe any more. But it was delicious all the same. So, here you go (it's vegetarian):

Lak's Sichuan-style Bear's Paw Tofu and Onion Soup (with apologies to Fuchsia Dunlop)
Preparation time: 5 minutes Cooking time: 20 minutes Serves: 4 as a main meal

3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp sesame oil
1.2 lb firm tofu sliced into 1/2" X 2" X 2" slices
1/2 onion finely chopped
6 cloves garlic peeled and finely chopped
2" piece of ginger peeled and finely chopped
1.5 tbsp sambal oelek [reduce if you can't handle spicy hot food]
1 tbsp rice vinegar
3 tbsp soy sauce [reduce if you are using canned broth]
1 tsp sugar
2 cups broth
2 tbsp cilantro finely chopped

(1) Weight the tofu down to squeeze most of the water out. I just lay the cakes flat on a cutting board and press down on them with my palm.
(2) Heat the oils until smoking in a flat bottomed pan
(3) Put in the tofu slices and fry quickly on both slides and remove with a slotted spoon. Do in batches if your pan is too small to hold all the tofu.
(4) Add onion, garlic, ginger and sambal oelek to the pan and reduce heat to medium. Stir-fry for 2-3 minutes
(5) Add rice vinegar, soy sauce, sugar and broth. Taste and add water or soy sauce so that the soup is salty enough. [I make my own fish broth -- if you use canned vegetable broth, reduce the amount of soy sauce since the commercial stuff has a lot of salt]
(6) Add tofu slices, bring to a boil and simmer gently for 10 minutes. This gentle simmer is the "trick" behind getting the tofu to absorb the sauce flavor.
(7) Garnish with the cilantro

Serve in a bowl. Place a tofu slice on the bottom and ladle over some soup. Serve with crusty wheat bread. Serves 4.

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