When my vegan friend from the States came to visit last year, she was in awe of the selection of tofu/related vegetarian products at the supermarket. While soy products have generally remained a vegetarian’s food in the western world, they enjoy such widespread use in China, appreciated even by meat lovers, that you basically can’t have a supermarket or wet market without a dedicated tofu counter (except City Shop, for shame).
I’ve been cooking with tofu a fair bit in the two years I’ve been in Shanghai, but up until recently have kept to only a handful of familiar douzhipin (豆制品) — products made of soy/mung/other beans that, along with wheat gluten products, are usually displayed in the tofu counter(s). It’s a little embarrassing, actually, that I haven’t gotten to know them all yet, so I’ve resolved to buy them all and try them all at least once — ’cause, really, when or where else am I going to be this spoiled for choice again? Some of these products, like soft tofu and deep-fried tofu puffs, have long been known to and loved by me, while others are new and mysterious and will require some major baidu-ing.
I’ll start this series with a familiar block of firm tofu. You can get this in a sealed, water-filled container or in a plastic baggy and priced by weight. I’m inclined to think the latter is more fresh, but with all the sneaky date relabelling practices these days, who really knows. Called laodoufu (老豆腐, literally old tofu) in Chinese, it is off-white, dense, and springy and (surprise!) firm to the touch. With a lower water content than soft or silken tofu, firm tofu will hold its shape in the pan and is thus a good choice for stir-fries, “steaks” and such.
I’ve incorporated diced firm tofu into veggie stir-fries before, but had never prepared it as a stand-alone dish. But the other day I stumbled upon a recipe calling for tofu to be coated in cornstarch before frying, and my life was forever changed.
You see, before, I’d always just put it directly on the pan and wondered why the edges never got crispy. No more! This stuff looked like cubes of chicken breast in the pan, then when I dished them out I started imagining they were pieces of crispy Cantonese roast pork (烧肉) (signs of a deranged vegetarian?). Dipping the cubes in Thai sweet chili sauce, Sean and I polished off the entire plate in a matter of minutes.
Pan-fried crispy tofu cubes
The cornstarch coating gives the tofu a crispy exterior without all the oil that goes into deep-frying. (They do start to lose their crisp more quickly than if deep-fried, however.) Great at absorbing surrounding flavours, these tofu cubes are delicious served with a sweet dipping sauce and make a healthy alternative to deep-fried meaty appetizers. Don’t skimp on the salt (unless for health reasons)!
1 block (extra-)firm tofu, approx. 12x12x8cm
2 tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp salt or to taste
1/2 tsp white pepper or to taste (optional)
1/4 cup Thai sweet chili sauce
1. Rinse tofu well and pat dry with clean paper towel. Cut tofu into 2cm cubes and pat dry again. Sprinkle 1/4 of cornstarch in bottom of large bowl and add one layer of tofu, then add rest of cornstarch and tofu alternately. Toss gently to coat without breaking up the tofu.
2. Heat 2 tbsp oil on a non-stick pan on medium-high heat. Add tofu cubes and spread as a single layer on pan. Let cook undisturbed for 5 minutes, or until bottoms of cubes are golden brown and have hardened into a crust.
3. Sprinkle salt and white pepper evenly on tofu, then flip onto other side using a spatula (use chopsticks to aid you). Some of the tofu pieces will be stuck together from the cornstarch, but that’s okay — just cut them lose with the spatula. Cook for another few minutes until bottoms are browned and crispy.
4. Toss tofu gently with the spatula so the other sides have a chance to cook briefly, then transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel.
5. Serve immediately with a bowl of Thai sweet chili sauce for dipping.