Why It Works
- First frying the Sichuan peppercorns and chiles together helps build up the dish's initial signature flavor base.
- Battered and fried tofu, peanuts, and chunks of celery create layer upon layer of satisfying crunch.
- The numbing effect of the Sichuan peppercorns helps subdue the heat (but not flavor) imparted by both dried and fresh chiles.
Things I love:
- Spicy food
- My wife**
- Crispy things
- A strongly-flavored but subtly balanced sauce that combines funky fermented elements, heat, rich umami-packed ingredients, bright vinegar, and a hint of sweetness.
*I love "Celery!" But not celery.
**Just covering my bases here.
I've recently discovered a way to get eight out of nine of these things together in one place: crispy kung pao tofu.
The basis of this recipe is pretty simple. It starts with the same crisp tofu I developed for my crispy tofu with broccoli recipe (which, in turn, drew its inspiration from my Korean-fried cauliflower recipe). The trick here is to use a combination of cornstarch and flour to make a batter that crisps nicely when you fry it. The real key is using vodka to bind the batter, which evaporates more readily when you fry it, yielding chunks of crispy tofu that stay crispy even when they're tossed with sauce at the end of cooking.
As for the rest of the ingredients, I doctored up my Kung Pao chicken recipe just slightly to incorporate some more vegetables (chunks of celery and hot long green peppers), but the basics are just about the same.
You start by infusing your stir-fry oil with a combination of mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns and fiery dried red chiles to build the ma-la flavor base that Sichuan food is famous for. In that oil, you then stir fry sliced leeks, celery, and long hot peppers until lightly blistered, then stir in some chopped garlic, ginger, and scallion greens. In goes the fried tofu and peanuts (tradition would dictate frying raw peanuts before incorporating them, but I just use plain old roasted peanuts because it's tough to find raw peanuts 'round these parts), and finally a light sauce made with soy sauce, Chinkiang black vinegar, a touch of sugar, and some Sichuan fermented broad bean paste.
Once you've cooked it down briefly and tossed it with the crisply fried tofu, you should end up with just enough sauce to barely coat the ingredients—this dish should be dry and deeply concentrated in flavor.
The finished dish is one of my new favorites. Peanuts, celery, and coated tofu—it's all crisp-on-crisp-on-crisp, with a heat that doesn't knock you out but slowly smolders, the numbing effect of the Sichuan peppercorns taming those flames just enough to keep you wanting to stuff more in your mouth.
So it's all well and good, but why, you might ask, can't I get all nine things I love together? For one simple reason:
Things my wife hates:
- Kung Pao anything
C'est la vie.
This recipe originally appeared as part of the column "The Vegan Experience."
1 1/2 quarts vegetable or peanut oil
1/2 cup plus 2 teaspoons cornstarch, divided
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup cold water
1/2 cup vodka
1 pound extra-firm tofu, cut into 3/4-inch cubes, carefully dried (see notes)
1/4 cup water or vegetable stock
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Sichuan broad bean chili paste
1 tablespoon Chinkiang vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
3 scallions, whites finely minced, and greens finely sliced, reserved separately
3 cloves minced garlic (about 1 tablespoon)
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns, divided
12 hot Chinese dry chile peppers
2 small leeks, white and light green parts only, cut into 1/4-inch slices (about 1/2 cup total)
2 ribs celery, split in half lengthwise and cut into 3/4-inch pieces
1 long green Chinese hot pepper, stemmed and seeded, cut into 3/4-inch squares
1/2 cup roasted peanuts
Cooked white rice, for serving
Heat oil in a wok to 350°F (177°C). Whisk together 1/2 cup cornstarch, flour, baking powder, and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Add water and vodka and whisk until a smooth batter is formed, adding up to 2 tablespoons additional water if batter is too thick. It should have the consistency of thin paint and fall off of the whisk in thin ribbons that instantly disappear as they hit the surface of the batter in the bowl.
Add tofu and carefully turn to coat. Working one at a time, lift one piece and allow excess batter to drip off. Carefully lower into hot oil. Repeat with remaining tofu until wok is full. Fry, using a metal spider or slotted spatula to rotate and agitate pieces as they cook until evenly pale golden and crisp all over, about 6 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. Repeat until all tofu is fried. Carefully pour oil out of wok into a heatproof container and reserve.
Combine stock, soy sauce, bean paste, vinegar, sugar, and remaining 2 teaspoons cornstarch in a small bowl. Set aside. Combine scallion whites, garlic, and ginger in a second small bowl. Set aside. Coarsely grind half of peppercorns in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.
Set a fine-mesh strainer over a heatproof bowl or saucepan. Return 1/4 cup of the reserved oil to wok and heat over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add remaining half of peppercorns and chiles and cook, stirring, for 5 seconds. Immediately drain through fine-mesh strainer. Pick out chiles and set aside. Discard cooked peppercorns.
Return infused oil to wok and heat over high heat until lightly smoking. Add leeks, celery, and long pepper and cook, stirring and tossing, until vegetables are lightly charred and tender-crisp, about 1 1/2 minutes. Clear a space in the center of the wok and add the scallion/ginger/garlic mixture. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add peanuts, dried chiles, and drained tofu. Stir sauce mixture and add to wok. Cook, tossing and folding ingredients together until tofu is fully coated. Add scallion greens and ground peppercorns and toss to combine. Serve immediately with white rice.
To dry tofu, line a rimmed baking sheet with paper towels. Place tofu slices on top in a single layer. Cover with another layer of paper towels and press gently to remove excess moisture.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 34g||44%|
|Saturated Fat 6g||29%|
|Total Carbohydrate 45g||16%|
|Dietary Fiber 8g||27%|
|Total Sugars 7g|
|Vitamin C 21mg||107%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|