Kung Pao Tofu
Kung Pao Tofu is a delicious Chinese-American stir-fry that’s based on a classic Sichuan chicken dish called Gong Bao Ji Ding. For my Kung Pao Tofu, I’ve taken inspiration from both versions, marinating the tofu and giving it a nice brown crust before stir-frying it with crisp bell peppers and crunchy oil-roasted peanuts. For the sauce, I use a combination of dark soy sauce, Shaoxing, doubanjiang, and black vinegar to create a balance of savory, spicy, sweet, and sour tastes that glazes all the ingredients in a glorious mahogany hue.
Why this recipe works
- The tofu is thoroughly drained on paper towels. Through gravity and capillary action, draining the tofu on several sheets of paper towels enables you to remove excess water from the tofu, which allows you to brown the tofu while keeping the sauce from getting watery.
- The tofu is marinated. This not only ensures the tofu is seasoned all the way through, but the salt also helps draw out additional water from the tofu, which keeps it from getting watery.
- Nothing is worse than soggy tofu that tastes of nothing more than soybeans. By draining and marinating the tofu, it reduces its water content far enough that it’s possible to brown the tofu. This forms a crust on the outside of the tofu that not only changes its texture, it also allows the flavorful sauce to cling to the tofu like a sponge.
- Use potato starch instead of cornstarch. Potato starch has larger starch granules than cornstarch, and it has a higher ratio of Amylopectin to Amylose. This allows it to thicken sauces without getting gummy or cloying, even after the sauce has cooled.
- A small amount of Sichuan pepper added to the sauce isn’t enough to make your tongue numb, but it adds a wonderful citrusy flavor to the dish.
What are the main ingredients for Kung Pao Tofu?
There’s some flexibility in the vegetables you add to the stir-fry, but here is a list of the key components I add to my Kung Pao Tofu.
- Tofu – There are two production methods by which tofu is produced. The first is to mix soymilk with a coagulant, and the mixture is steamed in a mold. This makes for soft silky tofu. Although delicious, this type of tofu is not suitable for this dish, because its soft texture will cause it to disintegrate as you stir-fry it.
The second production method involves boiling soy milk with the coagulant, which causes curds of soy protein to form. The curds are then strained and pressed together in a mold. This creates much firmer tofu. How firm depends on factors such as the amount of coagulant, how hot the mixture got, and how much the curds were pressed. This is the type of tofu that you want to use for this dish.
Unfortunately, different brands use different naming conventions, so some brands produce “soft,” “firm,” and “extra-firm” variants using the second production method. In contrast, the “soft” tofu produced by other brands is made using the first method. The safest bet is to use “firm” tofu, but for the brands that produce all of their tofu using the second method, I prefer their “soft” tofu.
- Shaoxing wine – Named after the region where it is produced, Shaoxing is a variety of huangjiu, a traditional Chinese rice wine. Although it is not very sweet, it has malty caramel notes that are a key component of the flavor of this dish.
- Soy sauce – This is the regular soy sauce such as Kikkoman you can get at the supermarket. If you are buying Chinese soy sauce, it is also sometimes labeled “light soy sauce,” but don’t get this mixed up with Japanese light soy sauce or low-sodium soy sauce, as these are both different products.
- Potato starch – As the name implies, potato starch is starch that has been derived from potatoes. Although it looks similar to cornstarch, it has unique properties that make it better suited for thickening sauces than cornstarch. When compared to cornstarch, potato starch has large grains, and it has more amylopectin relative to amylose. This gives it a softer texture that doesn’t seize up as it cools. In the US, Bob’s Red Mill produces potato starch, and it is available in high-end grocery stores as well as online.
Kung Pao Sauce
- Chinese dark soy sauce – This aged soy sauce has a thick syrupy texture and very dark color that gives the Kung Pao Sauce a beautifully lacquer-like sheen. It also has less salt and more flavor than ordinary soy sauce.
- Black vinegar – This is an aged rice wine vinegar that has a similar color to soy sauce. It has a malty flavor and mild sweetness that tames the acidity, making it particularly well suited for cooking. If you can’t find it, fake “balsamic” vinegar will work in a pinch (the real stuff can cost a fortune, and is too thick and sweet for this dish).
- Doubanjiang – This is a fermented chili paste made from fava beans, chili, and salt. It has a good amount of heat, but the fermentation process also lends it earthy notes and loads of umami.
- Sugar – This adds a balancing sweetness to the sauce.
- Sichuan pepper – Although they are not related to chili peppers or black pepper, Sichuan peppercorns are small berries that have a citrusy evergreen flavor. Added in larger quantities, they contain a compound that creates a numbing tingling sensation in your mouth (which some find desirable), but the amount in this recipe is mainly for the fragrance.
Kung Pao Stir-Fry
- Dried chili peppers – The traditional dried chilies to add are “facing heaven chilies,” but if you can’t find them, any dried small spicy chili pepper such as Arbol chilies will work.
- Peanuts – A trademark part of Kung Pao Tofu, the crunchy peanuts get oil roasted, so it’s best to get unroasted peanuts. If you can’t find them, look for unsalted ones that are relatively light in color.
- Ginger – Fresh ginger adds a nice zing, and together with the garlic, it forms the aromatic base for this stir-fry.
- Garlic – Since there is no meat in Kung Pao Tofu, it’s up to the aromatics to add flavor to this stir-fry. Garlic packs a big flavor punch, and it’s a crucial part of the seasoning for this dish.
- Bell peppers – I like using a combination of green and red bell peppers for this not such for their color but because the green ones impart a chili pepper taste without being spicy, while the red ones lend a fruity sweetness.
- Scallions – Chopped scallions added at the very end not only adds a pop of vibrant green color, but they also add a crisp texture and sweet onion flavor.
How to make Kung Pao Tofu
Tofu contains a lot of water, which tends to drain out as you cook it. This not only prevents you from achieving a proper crust on the tofu, but it can also water down your sauce. That’s why I always start by draining tofu thoroughly.
The best way to do this is to set the block on multiple layers of paper towels. Gravity and capillary action will do their job and draw out any excess water. It’s best to give it about an hour to drain, but if you don’t have time, even a few minutes is better than not draining it at all.
Once the tofu has been drained of excess water, you can marinate it in a combination of Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, salt, and potato starch. This not only seasons the tofu to its core, but the salt also draws out additional moisture through osmosis.
Next, you need to prepare the sauce by mixing together the dark soy sauce, Shaoxing, black vinegar, doubanjiang, sugar, potato starch, and Sichuan pepper. If you plan on making this frequently, you can make a bunch of sauce and store it in a bottle in the fridge. It will keep for weeks. Just be sure to stir or shake the sauce well before you use it as the potato starch will settle to the bottom.
As with any stir-fry, the cooking portion of this goes very quickly, so be sure to have all of your ingredients prepared and ready to go into the pan before you start cooking.
To start the stir-fry, I add the oil, peanuts, and chili peppers to a cool pan and then put it over high heat. This ensures the peanuts roast evenly without burning. Once they’re a nice golden brown, you need to transfer them out of the pan while leaving as much of the oil in the pan as possible.
The ginger and garlic get added to the oil and swirled around to infuse it with flavor. Then you want to drain off any excess marinade from the tofu and add it to the pan in a single layer. Let this fry undisturbed until the tofu starts to brown on one side. By browning the tofu it gives the exterior a more meaty texture, and it also helps free the tofu from the pan so that it doesn’t stick. If the tofu is still sticking to the pan after browning, you can use a firm spatula to scrape it up off the bottom of the pan.
Once the tofu is browned on one side, flip it over. The best way to do this is to toss it with the pan, but you can also carefully flip it over using a spatula.
When the tofu has browned on the second side, add the red and green bell peppers and toss them together with the tofu until the red and green colors really pop.
Now you want to return the roasted peanuts and chilies to the pan and add the sauce. The sauce should start thickening as soon as it comes to a boil, and then it’s just a matter of tossing everything together until the sauce forms a thick, shiny glaze around all the ingredients.
Serve your Kung Pao Tofu with rice.
Kung Pao Tofu is a creation of Chinese-American restaurants that were looking to offer a plant-based alternative to Kung Pao Chicken. The original dish, Gong Bao Ji Ding (宫保鸡丁) was created in Sichuan province, China, as a stir-fry of marinated chicken with peanuts, chili peppers, and Sichuan pepper.
Kung Pao is a transliteration of the Chinese title Gong Bao (宫保), which literally means “palace guardian.” It is thought that the dish is named after a late Qing Dynasty governor of Sichuan Province named Ding Baozhen, who held the title around the time the dish was created.
Like most stir-fries, most of the time and effort of making Kung Pao Tofu is in the initial prep of all the ingredients. By preparing some of these ingredients in advance, you can reduce the time it takes to make this dish down to a few minutes. The sauce, for example, can be made in bulk and stored in a bottle in the refrigerator for months. The tofu can be drained and marinated up to two days in advance. The vegetables for the stir-fry are best prepared when you plan to make it, but they too can be pre-chopped up to a few days in advance. Then, it’s just a matter of throwing the ingredients into a frying pan in groups.
Other easy tofu recipes
- 400 grams firm tofu (cut into 1-inch cubes)
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon potato starch
- 1 tablespoon Chinese dark soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
- 1 tablespoon black vinegar
- 2 teaspoons doubanjiang
- 2 teaspoons evaporated cane sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon potato starch
- 1/4 teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper (to taste)
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 50 grams peanuts (~1/3 cup)
- 6 dried chili peppers
- 10 grams fresh ginger (minced)
- 10 grams garlic (~1 large clove, minced)
- 70 grams red bell pepper (~ 1/2 pepper, chopped)
- 70 grams green bell pepper (~ 1/2 pepper, chopped)
- 2 scallions (chopped for garnish)
- About an hour before you want to make your Kung Pao Tofu, set the tofu on several sheets of paper towels to drain.
- To marinate the tofu, stir together the Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, and salt until the salt is fully dissolved. Add the potato starch and stir until no clumps are remaining. Add the tofu and swirl to coat with the marinade.
- To prepare the sauce, add the Chinese dark soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, black vinegar, doubanjiang, sugar, potato starch, and Sichuan pepper to a bowl and stir to combine.
- Put a cold frying pan over high heat and add the vegetable oil, peanuts and chili peppers before the pan has a chance to heat up. Stir fry them until the peanuts turn golden brown, and the chilies are a very dark shade of red. Quickly transfer them out of the pan before they burn (you may want to remove the pan from the heat).
- Add the ginger and garlic, swirl it around in the oil.
- Drain any excess marinade off of the tofu, and then add the tofu in a single layer. Let this fry undisturbed until the tofu starts to brown.
- When the tofu has started to brown, flip them over and brown the other side.
- Add the red and green bell peppers and toss them with the tofu until their color becomes vibrant.
- Return the peanuts and chilies to the pan, give the sauce a stir and add it to the pan as well.
- Toss to coat the ingredients with the sauce. The Kung Pao Tofu is done when the sauce has thickened and coated everything in a shiny glaze.