Sweet and Sour Tofu with Ohitashi Spinach

By Joanna Conway
Joanna Conway
Joanna Conway
July 16, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015
(Illustration by Joel Benjamin)
(Illustration by Joel Benjamin)

Ohitashi spinach is a popular dish in Japan; it literally means something soaked or drenched in liquid. The liquid in this case is shoyu, a naturally brewed soya sauce. Sometimes mirin and a sprinkling of bonito flakes, the curly fish flakes that look like wood shavings, are added.

Even in its simplest form this is a delicious way to enjoy spinach. Quick-blanching the spinach and refreshing it keeps the nutrients and colour in. Even for non-spinach eaters the mellowness of the shoyu and sesame seeds take the edge off this iron-rich vegetable.

Traditionally this is served as a starter or side dish, but it also makes a good accompaniment to the tofu and rice below.

To serve, the spinach can be wrapped into rolls (as illustrated), or more simply just piled into little hillocks or mounds, then drenched with the shoyu.

250g firm tofu
1/8 of a medium-sized white cabbage
1 small carrot
½ medium-sized green pepper
¼ medium-sized onion
200g jar of sweet and sour sauce
225g long-grain brown rice (not basmati)

Prepare the tofu:

Wrap the tofu block in double thickness kitchen towels and place under a wooden chopping board. Place a heavy weight on top, like a saucepan filled with water or heavy wok, and let the tofu drain for half an hour. Cut into 1-inch cubes and marinate in 1-2 tablespoons of shoyu.

The rice:
Rinse the rice and place in a saucepan. Add double the volume of water (approx. 500ml). Bring to a boil on a high heat, then simmer uncovered vigorously until most of the water has been absorbed. If the water evaporates too rapidly, and the rice is not soft enough (test a grain), then top up with more hot water. The rice should cook for about 40-45 minutes.

To finish the rice, so it is dry and fluffy, turn the heat to very low and leave the saucepan half covered for 5-7 minutes.

The vegetables and tofu:
Cut vegetables into even sized pieces. Heat  half an inch depth of vegetable oil in a large pan, over a medium or high heat. When slightly smoking, carefully fry the tofu cubes until golden brown on all sides (you may need to regulate the heat so they don’t burn). Drain the cubes on kitchen paper

Wipe the pan clean and heat half a tablespoon or so of oil until very hot. Quickly stir fry all the vegetables in rapid succession for about 3 minutes, starting with the carrots, onions, peppers and white cabbage, adding a few shakes of shoyu.

After about 2½ minutes add the tofu cubes, stir fry for about 30 seconds then add the sweet and sour sauce. After the sauce bubbles, turn the heat down and cook for a further 40-50 seconds. Serve with the rice.

Ohitashi spinach

Half a 300g bag of  spinach
2 tbsp sesame seeds (toasted lightly in a pan, and partially crushed)

To cook:

Place the spinach in a colander and wash thoroughly to remove all grit and dirt. Shake dry and leave to drain. Bring a large pan of water, three quarters full, to the boil. When it reaches a rolling boil, drop the spinach in, push under with a wooden spoon and blanch quickly for 2½ minutes. Drain in a colander and refresh quickly under cold, running water.

Separate the spinach carefully into little patties and press gently between the palms of your hands to remove as much water as possible. Arrange small clumps of the spinach in three piles on a decorative plate, sprinkle on some shoyu and top with a few crushed sesame seeds. Serve at room temperature or cold.

Joanna Conway
Joanna Conway