Meatless Madison: Three-cup tofu at Natt Spil

Try this vegetarian twist on three-cup chicken

Next up in the Meatless Madison series, where we highlight popular vegetarian and vegan dishes at Madison-area restaurants, is the three-cup tofu at Natt Spil. While at least a quarter of the menu items at this dark, cozy restaurant and bar located on King Street just off Capitol Square are vegetarian (including the current pizza special), the three-cup tofu reigns supreme. “It’s our No. 1 vegetarian menu item,” chef David Oliver says. “I sell hundreds of pounds of tofu a year.”

Technically vegan — and available gluten-free, too — the three-cup tofu has been on Natt Spil’s menu for at least 10 years since Oliver says people were asking for a vegetarian version of Natt Spil’s popular take on three-cup chicken, a traditional Taiwanese beer hall dish.

“It’s almost like in bars here in the U.S. where you stop for a pint on the way home from work and you snack on peanuts or pretzels sitting in a bowl on the bar,” Oliver says. “In Taiwan you get a beer and a cheap bowl of three-cup chicken.” Oliver, who received his culinary training in San Francisco where he focused on Asian cuisine, visited Taiwan with Natt Spil owner Prentice Berge’s family. Berge’s wife is originally from Taiwan, and they took the trip to get inspiration for Natt Spil’s menu.

When Oliver decided to riff on the chicken with a vegetarian version made with tofu, “Prentice was aghast!” Oliver says with a laugh. “But I said, ‘We don’t have to be authentic, we just have to be good. We get to write our own rules!'” And write their own rules they do. Natt Spil is known for its Chinese dim sum, wood-fired pizzas and late-night DJs. “We’re Madison’s favorite Chinese pizza disco with a Norwegian name,” Oliver says.

Oliver says there are many different stories that accompany the origin of the traditional three-cup chicken dish, but the “three cups” refers to equal parts soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine used in the sauce. For the tofu version, Oliver uses extra-firm, pressed turmeric tofu that he gets from Chicago. “It reminded me the most of biting into chicken,” Oliver says. Oliver cooks the tofu with a little sugar in a stainless steel wok, which creates a rich glaze. Accompanying the tofu is a mound of white rice and a cucumber and tomato salad dressed with rice vinegar, soy sauce and chilis.

“The tofu is rich, salty and sweet,” Oliver says. “I wanted to have something piquant on the side to balance those flavors.”