This Ma Lan Tou Spiced tofu dish is a Shanghainese dish through and through. The dish in Chinese is called Ma Lan Xiang Gan (马兰香干) or liang ban xiang gan ma lan tou (凉伴香干马兰头), which literally means “cold tossed fragrant tofu and ma lan tou.”
The key vegetable used, ma lan tou, is very fragrant, and when combined with cold spiced tofu, it makes for a really lovely refreshing dish for the summer months.
This cold dish usually served as an appetizer, and when we see it, we almost always order it, because it’s quite rare outside of China. If you find yourself in China, you can find this dish in Shanghai, but also in restaurants specializing in Shanghainese cuisine in Beijing and other big cities.
What Is Ma Lan Tou?
Ma lan tou has an herb-like taste that is vaguely similar to chrysanthemum leaves, but milder in flavor. You can see what it looks like in the picture below:
We haven’t seen ma lan tou (technically known as Kalimeris Indica, Indian Aster, or Indian Kalimeris ) at any markets in the US, although we did find sources for where to buy seeds and live plants on the internet (for those of you who enjoy home gardening).
Check out our ma lan tou entry on our Chinese Leafy Greens page for more information about this fragrant vegetable and where to get your hands on some!
About Dry Spiced Tofu
Turning to the second key component of the dish: dry spiced tofu. There are many types of dried tofu with different flavors, as you can see on our Tofu and Bean Curd Ingredients page.
However, it’s best to select a mild-flavored dried tofu for this dish, since the fragrant ma lan tou flavor should be the star of the dish.
Substituting Other Greens
Since we recognize that not all of you have the commitment or the wherewithal to grow these veggies in your garden just to enjoy one dish, you can substitute other fragrant vegetables like fresh celery leaves, tong ho (chrysanthemum leaves), or even a mixture of Shanghai bok choy leaves and cilantro.
Get creative with what you have available, and the possibilities are endless for this dish!
Note: If you’re scaling this dish up, the ratio of the ma lan tou to dried tofu should be about 3 to 1.
Wash the ma lan tou (马兰头) thoroughly, removing any yellow leaves. We like to wash our leafy green veggies three times. Prepare a wok of boiling water and blanch the ma lan tou for about 15 seconds, or until just wilted. Transfer immediately to an ice bath to cool.
Using a colander, drain all water from the veggies, and use your hands to squeeze out any excess. You’ll end up with a small bunch of ma lan tou. Keeping it in one bundle as best as possible, finely chop the veggies. Cut the dried tofu into small cubes like you see in the picture.
Transfer the chopped ma lan tou and chopped tofu to a mixing bowl, and add the salt, sugar, and sesame oil. Mix thoroughly. The tablespoon of sesame oil will be quite fragrant, and if you want a more subtle flavor, reduce the sesame oil to 1 teaspoon, and add 2 teaspoons of peanut oil instead.
I recommend that you add the salt, sugar, and sesame oil gradually, let the mixture sit for 10 minutes, allowing the flavors to meld, and then adjust the seasonings to your own liking. I consulted Judy’s mother when making this dish with the amounts in this recipe, and she gave her nod of approval that it tastes the way Shanghainese like it–just enough salt with a hint of sweetness!
You can make this dish ahead of time and keep it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to serve. If you want to get a little fancy, lightly pack the mixture into a mold (we used a rice bowl), turn it over onto your dish of choice, and serve!
Enjoy this Ma Lan Tou Spiced Tofu!