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Tofu finds its flavor 

Mixed with meat, it surprises even carnivores

Since Meatless Monday first became a thing in 2003, many people have taken to skipping meat one day a week for a New Year's resolution. The amount of resources — and the land required to grow it — used to produce meat could feed vegetables to a lot more people, with less greenhouse gas production and other environmental fallout. As awareness of where meat comes from becomes ingrained in mainstream understanding, many have sadly concluded that they should cut back on meat.

I'm fortunate to be able to shoot enough deer each year that I can avoid many of the ethical issues related to industrial meat production (hunting has its own set of issues). I eat a ton of wild game without compunction, but I sympathize with the purchasers of feedlot meat who want to reduce their consumption. While some meat eaters aren't ready to make this step, others are looking to take it a notch past a mere Meatless Monday. Both groups would do well to consider the ancient Chinese practice of mixing meat with tofu, which effectively cuts meat consumption in half for a given meal.

Meat lovers often look down on tofu as a bland substitute for their protein of choice. Indeed, protein content notwithstanding, they are nothing alike. You can't just swap tofu for meat and expect no one to notice. That much was clear to me when, as a young vegetarian, my dad tried to make me eat bean curd, as he called it, so I wouldn't become malnourished. Bean curd's culinary virtues, as he explained them, were based on its ability to absorb the flavors around it. While by itself tofu may taste like a more succulent version of chalk, if you cook it with yummy ingredients, it will taste similarly yummy.

Alas, when those accompanying ingredients are plant-based, as is the case with vegetarian tofu dishes, it's a laughable meat substitute. But when the accompanying ingredients are pork-based, another side of tofu emerges. While Swiss chard-flavored tofu might not satisfy a carnivorous hunger, bacon-greased bean curd is a proven winner.

My local Chinese restaurant does spectacular things with pork and tofu. One special combines slices of pork belly with dried tofu and mustard greens, and the "Chinese-style" twice-cooked pork is half tofu — nobody complains. The kitchen also cranks out a great version of the Szechuan comfort food mapo tofu, in which ground pork and chunks of tofu are cooked together with tongue-numbing Szechuan pink peppercorns (not related to black pepper), in a black bean chili sauce. In China, mapo tofu is so popular there are restaurants that serve nothing else.

Tofu and pork are cooked together in the cuisines of other Asian countries as well, including Korea and Japan, each of which has its own version of mapo tofu, and in Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam.

In the U.S., where tofu is still largely considered a meat substitute rather than having an identity of its own, the combination of pork and tofu is often considered an oxymoron. But I love everything about this counter-intuitive pairing, from the flavor to the sentiment behind it. Nothing screams "tofu is not a meat substitute!" quite like mixing it with bacon. In fact, tofu is actually a great meat extender. Adding a brick's worth of tofu slices allows you to use less meat than you would have, without feeling deprived.

One of the easiest ways to experience porky tofu is to fry it with bacon, in oyster sauce. Firm tofu is best for this. Start by frying the tofu in a little oil, and when it's nearly done to your liking add the bacon, chopped in one-inch squares. Stir gently so as not to break the tofu chunks. When the bacon is nearly done, add minced garlic. Stir it around for a second, then add a few tablespoons of oyster sauce, along with some white wine or water if the pan is dry. Serve with rice. Vegetables can be added to this dish as well, at different points, depending on how long they take to cook. I like to keep it simple with just one vegetable, like broccoli or kale.

I'm not often mistaken as a Chinese chef, but the results were impressive when I followed Marc Matsumoto's mapo tofu recipe that I found on the PBS Fresh Tastes blog (www.pbs.org/food/fresh-tastes/mapo-tofu). Matsumoto also discusses the meaning of the dish's name, which translates into something like "Pockmark-faced lady's tofu." Not the most appetizing name, but boy does it hit the spot. My pork-averse wife ate more than I did.

If you can get your hands on sprouted tofu, you should give it a try. Even raw, it tastes considerably better than succulent chalk, and has more nutrients than unsprouted tofu. Sprouted tofu is typically sold in firm bricks, rather than the soft variety that's best for Mapo Tofu. But with bacon and oyster sauce, firm sprouted tofu works great. And there is something deeply satisfying, on a semantic level, about eating sprouted tofu with bacon. It's like eating something that doesn't make any sense and shouldn't exist, like braised perpetual motion. This, and the amazing flavor of pork and tofu, can make cutting back on meat feel more like a gift than a sacrifice.

Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that has appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 21 states. Learn more at flashinthepan.net.

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