Agedashi Tofu is one of those magical dishes where a few simple ingredients come together in a harmonizing synergy that elevates the dish from humble to divine. It's made with blocks of soft tofu that are coated in a thin layer of potato starch before being lightly fried. Then, the tofu is served in a savory dashi broth with a few garnishes, like scallions, daikon, nori or ginger.
I know it sounds stupid simple, and you're probably wondering how it could possibly be as good as I describe, but a great Agedashi Tofu is like a perfect warm custard that melts on your tongue into a creamy pool of savory dashi, lightly accented by the garnishes. The magic is in the way the coating absorbs the flavorful dashi, seasoning the tofu, while also releasing some residual oil into the broth, imparting a hint of richness without being greasy.
When properly made, Agedashi tofu easily makes my list of 10 favorite Japanese dishes. Although it's simple to prepare, it's also pretty easy to get wrong, and I've seen too many versions of this dish that are just plain awful. Agedashi Tofu should not be a tasteless pile of gummy mush, drowning in an insipid broth. Nor should it be a soggy breaded grease bomb that tastes like stale donuts, and it most certainly shouldn't be a tough crispy sponge, smothered in a cloyingly sweet teriyaki sauce.
The secrets to a great Agedashi Tofu are in its name, which literally means "fried dashi tofu" in Japanese. That's why the type of tofu, the quality of the dashi and method in which it is fried is so important to the resulting dish.
For frying, it's essential to use fresh oil. Agedashi Tofu is not the kind of dish to make with oil that you want to get one last fry out of before you toss it out. It has a very delicate flavor profile and if you use old oil, it will end up greasy, tasting like all the things that have been fried in the oil before. The temperature of the oil should also be relatively high. This ensures that the coating fries up crisp, without frying the tofu itself (which would give it a spongy texture). Lastly, the coating needs to be potato starch (cornstarch just isn't the same). After soaking in the dashi, the potato starch will lose it's crispness, but it absorbs the dashi in the process, creating a flavorful, nearly transparent skin that's a bit like those translucent wrappers used for dim sum.
For the dashi, head over to my post on making dashi from scratch. You want to make one that's fairly concentrated. If you must, use dashi packets (the ones that are like tea bags with the dried fish and konbu in the bags), but please don't make this with powdered dashi granules (the kind you just add water to)
Last but not least, be sure to use soft tofu. Firm tofu just doesn't have the same satiny texture of soft tofu and will leave you chewing a dish that should melt away in your mouth.
Aside from using good ingredients and proper technique, there's one small thing I do that makes a big difference in the balance of the finished dish. Instead of just draining the and drying the surface of the tofu before frying, I salt the tofu as well. This does two things. The first is that it helps rid the tofu of extra water better than just draining it. The second is that it lightly seasons the tofu, this allows you to make the dashi less salty, so you can enjoy it as a soup along with the tofu.
As for toppings, I like to go simple with just some daikon and scallions. The grated daikon adds just a hint of pepperiness while giving the dashi a thicker consistency, ensuring you get enough flavor with each bite of creamy tofu.
- Slice the block of tofu in half one way, and then in half the other way to make 4 cubes. Sprinkle all sides of the tofu with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and then place the tofu on a wire-mesh tray or sieve to drain for 20-30 minutes. This step is very important as pockets of water exploding in hot frying oil is a recipe for disaster.
- While you wait for the tofu to drain, season the dashi, by putting the dashi, soy sauce, sugar and salt into a small saucepan and heating until the salt dissolves. Cover to prevent evaporation and keep it warm over low heat on a back burner.
- Grate the daikon using the rasp side of box grater (or a dedicated daikon grater if you have one), and then pour it into a small wire-mesh sieve, pressing on the solids to get rid of some, but not all of the liquid.
- When you're ready to fry the tofu, add 1 1/2 to 2 inches of vegetable oil into a heavy bottomed pot that's large enough to accommodate all the tofu. Preheat to 360 degrees F (180 C).
- Prepare a wire rack lined with a triple layer of paper towels to transfer the tofu to when it's done frying. Add the potato starch to a small bowl.
- When your oil has reached the correct temperature, dry the tofu off thoroughly using paper towels, and then roll each block of tofu in the potato starch to coat evenly on every side with a thin layer of starch. Dust off the excess starch and gently lower each block of tofu into the oil.
- Fry the tofu until the sides have crisped and then use chopsticks or tongs to gently roll each piece of tofu over onto the other side. The tofu is done when all sides are crisp and the tofu looks slightly puffy. It should not be browned. Transfer to the prepared rack and let it drain for a few moments before plating each block of tofu into a small bowl.
- Top with the scallions and a small mound of daikon, and then pour the hot dashi over the tofu.