Spinach and soya beancurd are so healthful that one does not associate high style with these foods. Yet the chefs at Chinese restaurants have worked wonders with these everyday ingredients. They have created tasty appetisers that look so stylish their nutritional benefits seem but an afterthought.
In their hands, the common spinach and the firm soya bean cake we know as tau kwa are cooked lightly, chopped and combined to make a mixture that can be formed into little towers for the appetizer plate - a great presentation.
Health benefit-wise, spinach is low in calories and free of fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. It is also a good source of fibre, vitamins A and C, iron, folate and magnesium.
Soya beancurd, in all its various forms, is a good source of high quality protein (especially for vegetarians), B-vitamins and iron. Moreover, it is touted as having anti-carcinogenic, anti-oxidant and cholesterol-lowering properties.
While there is some controversy surrounding soya's health benefits, I always tell people it is an ancient food that has been eaten by the Chinese for centuries without ill effect. As with all things, moderation is the key.
But all this is incidental to this recipe. It is delicious on its own merit and pretty enough for a party dish.
The recipe is unbelievably simple. When I first ate it at a Chinese restaurant, it was featured as a cold appetiser and came in a pyramid-shaped tower. How dramatic.
Having eaten spinach and tau kwa in all manner of recipes and presentations, this one was novel and truly tasty.
Yet I was intrigued by how simple the recipe was and how easy it was to replicate the presentation.
All you need to do is to cook the spinach, rinse it in cold water to retain its green colour, then squeeze it dry to allow the seasonings to penetrate before chopping it finely.
It is then mixed with the finely-diced tau kwa and - this is the secret - packed tightly into small containers.
I used a small glass bowl that I filled to the brim, an important point if you do not want the result to fall apart when you 'un-mould' it.
There are other pluses, aside from its nutrition and dramatic presentation. It is an easy recipe to make, needing less than half an hour to prepare. Finally, it can be done ahead of time, making it even easier if you're entertaining.
The dish is delicious served cold and the time in the fridge allows the tau kwa and spinach to absorb the seasonings, allowing the flavours to come together beautifully.
And as for me, I am just happy to collect yet one more spinach and soya bean recipe for my scrapbook.
Sylvia Tan is a freelance writer
SPINACH AND TOFU TOWERS
(Makes four, depending on the size of the bowls)
1 bunch (or 400g) of English or Chinese spinach
2 cakes tau kwa (firm soya bean cake)
A pinch of salt
1/2 tsp light soya sauce
1/2 tsp sugar
1 tsp sesame oil
White pepper to taste
4 small bowls
Wash the spinach thoroughly to rid it of soil and soak it for half an hour in cold water to revive the leaves. Drain.
Bring a pot of water to the boil and cook the spinach for a few minutes, just to soften. Rinse it under a cold tap to cool, then squeeze the vegetable dry. Chop finely and leave aside.
Heat a tablespoon of oil in a small pan and lightly fry the tau kwa. Remove and cut tau kwa into small pieces. Leave to cool.
Combine both chopped spinach and diced tau kwa in a bowl. Season with salt, sesame oil, sugar and soya sauce. Add pepper to taste.
Pack this mixture tightly into small bowls filled to the brim. I used cone-shaped dessert bowls. Cover bowls with cling film and leave in the fridge to chill.
Just before serving, un-mould spinach and tofu cones by placing a plate that you want to serve the appetiser on over the bowl and upturning it. A tap on the bottom of the bowl should loosen the cone.
It will make a fitting start to any dinner party, apart from its health benefits.