When I was growing up this was a very common dish in my house. My Mom would make this super-simple fried tofu at least twice a week as a snack, an appetizer, or a side dish in a larger Asian-style meal. When I visit my mother in Atlanta we eat it at every evening meal. We’ve been eating this same tofu dish for years and years because it is utterly delicious and surprisingly addictive. The mild curd develops unexpected flavors (sweet, a little sour, a little nutty) when fried, and the crisp edges give it textural interest and a nice chew. Dipped in something as simple as soy sauce, maybe with a little fiery chili paste in it, the little soy bean curd pillows are delightfully fun to eat as you pop them in your mouth. When I married Regina I discovered that she too loves this dish, which made me realize anew that fried tofu is ubiquitous in Asia. Fried tofu eclipses class and culture and politics — pretty much everyone who eats it loves it. Certainly my whole family loves it, including my tofu-obsessed father and my eight-year old son Bennet.
Not only is it tasty, but it’s cheap (a pound of tofu is about a buck) and it’s incredibly easy to make, as long as you’re not afraid of frying. And you shouldn’t be intimidated by frying, as long as you are a little careful.
This recipe is simple: cut some tofu and then fry the tofu. Eat the tofu.
Okay, okay, I’ve got a few tips to help impart some understanding on how to make this dish happen.
- Use firm tofu. Any other kind of tofu has a propensity to stick to itself, very tenaciously, in the fryer. Also I prefer organic, non-GMO tofu.
- Press as much water out of the tofu as you can. You can achieve this putting a pound block of tofu on a plate lined with a folded-over kitchen towel. Cover the kitchen towel with a paper towel. Put another paper towel on top of the tofu. Cover that with a small plate. Balance a can of food (tomatoes, olive, beans, what-have-you) on the plate. Press the tofu in this manner for at least an hour to squeeze out excess water.
- When the tofu has exuded some of its water, cut it into cubes or blocks about a 2/3 of an inch thick. Honestly, whatever thickness you want is probably okay. They don’t have to be 100% uniform.
- Fry in good quality oil that can handle high temperatures. I prefer peanut oil for tofu.
- Fry at about 365 – 375° F. If this means you have to invest in a cheap fry thermometer, so be it. You can buy them in most supermarkets for a few bucks.
- Three ways to fry: in about two inches of oil in a wok, in about an inch of oil in a non-stick skillet with high sides, or in a counter-top deep fryer. All methods have advantages and disadvantages. The counter-top fryer is maybe the easiest and it results in a more uniform fry, but the tofu will stick easily to the wire fry basket, meaning you might have to dislodge the tofu halfway through the cooking process. Both the wok and the skillet are easy to work with, but lack the advantage of a thermostat, meaning you’ll have more guesswork when it comes to maintaining a good temperature for the oil. Any stove-top method will involve some degree of oil spatter, so a wire-mesh spatter-guard is highly recommended. Also, in both wok and skillet you’ll need to work more actively to flip the tofu so it cooks on all sides, so be prepared for that.
- Tofu sticks to itself! These tofu cubes want to cling to each other as you fry, so cook only a few pieces at a time. You’ll still need to occasionally use tongs or chopsticks to isolate pieces as you fry or separate pieces that have wandered too close too other.
- Cubed tofu will take about five minutes to crisp uniformly on all sides.
- A lot of people drain their tofu on a plate lined with paper towels. I prefer a sheet pan lined with a cooking rack, so that more oil drips away from the cooked tofu. Either method is fine for beginners.
- Serve the tofu still warm. I like to sprinkle it with a little salt. A pinch of white pepper and five-spice powder is nice for a Sichuan touch. For a more Japanese version, try a sprinkle of furikake or togarashi shichimi.
- For dipping I love dark soy sauce with a dose of sambal oelek or sriracha hot sauce. A touch of sesame oil or dark black vinegar is a nice addition too. For a slight Vietnamese twist try sugary fish sauce mixed with lime juice with some minced garlic and chilis thrown in.
- I usually toss on top some sliced scallion greens and a few cilantro leaves.
I hope you give this simple dish a try. It’s got only one ingredient, it doesn’t take any real skill, and it’s a great dish to practice frying on.