The Vegan Experience: Crispy Kung Pao Tofu

A serving bowl of crispy kung pao tofu, with a bowl of white steamed rice next to it.
Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Welcome to the third year of The Vegan Experience! All month we're exploring the vegan lifestyle, from dining out to eating in, developing a slew of delicious recipes for vegan appetizers, snacks, and entrées along the way.

Things I love:

  1. Tofu
  2. Spicy food
  3. Peanuts
  4. Stir-frying
  5. Celery!*
  6. My wife**
  7. Crispy things
  8. CHILES
  9. A strongly-flavored but subtly balanced sauce that combine 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 corn starch 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.

Frying tofu cubes in a wok.

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.

Bowls of ingredients for crispy kung pao tofu.

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.

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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 keep you wanting to stuff more in your mouth.

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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:

  1. Kung Pao anything
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C'est la vie.