Fried Tofu, two ways - simple vegetarian soy sauce fried tofu (生抽煎豆腐) and an old-school Qing dynasty shrimp fried tofu (蒋侍郎豆腐)

So this week we wanted to show you two renditions of fried tofu – first, a simpler fried tofu with shallot and soy sauce (which is also vegan, if you’re into that kinda thing), and also a slightly more complex of a fried tofu that we adapted from an old Qing dynasty cookbook.

Now, things’re definitely changing, but tofu is an ingredient that’s always seemed to get a bad rap – understandably, as if you just blindly tossed some random tofu cubes in salad or something it sure ain’t gunna be tasty. Tofu is a little like, say, potatoes – you gotta do stuff to them. Both ingredients are a bit bland on their own, but work phenomenally as a ‘blank canvas’ of sorts to add other flavors. In Chinese, this concept is called jiewei – or ‘borrowing the flavors’ – and in my opinion no ingredient borrows flavors quite as well as tofu can.

Ingredients, Soy Sauce Fried Tofu:

We went real simple for this first one, as we wanted to communicate a recipe that basically anyone living anywhere could recreate. Some other common additions might be some sliced mild green and red chilis, fermented black beans, etc.

  1. Firm Tofu (老豆腐/板豆腐), one block, 400g. Cut in half and then into one cm pieces. We’re gunna be frying this tofu, so a firm tofu is perfect.
  2. Green onion (葱), about three sprigs, separated into the white part (to use as an aromatic) and the green part (to finish the dish). Cut these into about two inch sections.
  3. Shallot (干葱), 1. Sliced.
  4. Liaojiu (料酒), 1 tbsp. A.k.a. Shaoxing wine, Huangjiu, Chinese cooking wine. As always, if you gotta sub this, sake would be slighty different but my go-to. Mirin would be fine (though you might wanna cut the sugar in half in that case), and white wine would also completely work in a pinch.
  5. Light Soy Sauce (生抽), 1.5 tbsp. If you can’t find Chinese light soy sauce, a Japanese soy sauce like Kikkoman would also work wonderfully in this dish.
  6. Sugar, 1 tsp.
  7. Oil, 3-4 tbsp. For frying. Quick note that this amount – 3-4 tbsp – is if you’re using a round bottomed wok. If using a flat bottomed wok (or some other piece of kitchen cookware), add enough oil to get about 1-2 cm up from the bottom of the wok.

Process, Shallot and Soy Sauce fried tofu:

  1. Cut the tofu and aromatics, and thoroughly dry the tofu. When working with firm tofu, there’s a small tough bit on the very top and bottom of the tofu. This is totally optional, but we slice that off in order to get a more even texture from the tofu. Slice the tofu in half lengthwise, and then cut in into 1 cm pieces working from the other direction. Thoroughly pat the tofu dry with some paper towels – we don’t want the tofu to be popping like crazy when we add it to the oil to fry. Chop up the aromatics – slicing the green onion into two inch pieces and separating the white part from the green part. Thinly slice up the shallot and toss it together with the white part of the green onion.
  2. Longyau, then with the heat on medium carefully add the tofu into the wok. As always, first longyau – get that wok piping hot, shut off the heat, add in the oil, and give it a swirl to get a nice non-stick surface. With the heat on medium, add in the tofu pieces. If you’re a pro you can carefully slide them all in at once, but to make sure that the tofu doesn’t pile and break (worst case scenario when making this dish), we recommend adding the pieces one by one.
  3. Let the tofu panfry for about eight minutes until the bottom is nice and golden brown. Same deal as whenever you’re panfrying anything from any cuisine ever – don’t touch the tofu. Let the tofu develop a crust and get nice and golden brown. If you got a round bottom wok like us though, you’re gunna want to tilt the wok to each side to move the oil and ensure the tofu cooks evenly.
  4. Flip the tofu and cook on the other side for five minutes. Take out the tofu once each side is crispy and golden brown. Find a tiny plate or something to put your tofu on… this’ll be out for like three minutes tops.
  5. In the same oil, same medium heat… fry the white part of the green onion and the shallot for 1-2 minutes, then add back the tofu. Just fry until they start to smell real nice, then add back the tofu. Give it a quick mix together (~15 seconds).
  6. Up the heat to high, then add the liaojiu over the spatula and around the sides of the wok and give it a quick mix. Then do the same thing with the soy sauce. Adding these liquids on the spatula and over the sides of the wok’ll help ensure that they sizzle and quickly reduce instead of collect at the bottom and start simmering. After each addition of liquid, give it about a ~15 second mix. Make sure there’s no visible liaojiu in the wok before you add in the soy sauce.
  7. Add the sugar, fry together until the sugar dissolves (~30 seconds). Add the green part of the green onion, shut off the heat, give it a quick mix, and out.

Ingredients, Fried Tofu ‘braised’ with Shrimp (蒋侍郎豆腐):

  1. Firm Tofu (老豆腐/板豆腐), one block, 400g. Same deal. Cut in half then into one cm pieces.
  2. Dried shrimp (虾米), 15g to be simmered in two cups water. I know that as soon as we write ‘dried shrimp’ in a recipe the number of people that try to recreate it almost immediately trends towards zero. But seriously, give it a try - dried shrimp (together with dried shitake mushrooms) are like nature’s MSG. Especially after simmering for a while, there’ll barely even be any shrimp flavor remaining… what you’ll have left is a real intense glutamate kick that gives an even stronger (yet somehow more balanced) umami flavor than MSG. If you’re tentative about using dried shrimp in your cooking due to sourcing concerns, just buy a pack on Amazon (not a referral link, no worries).
  3. Lard (猪油), 3-4 tbsp. For frying. I suppose I should write that this is optional, but I really don’t want to. Lard is such a great frying oil – especially for tofu and vegetable dishes, where it’ll lend a good bit more richness to the dish. If rendering lard's something new to you, feel free to check out the note below.
  4. Rice wine (米酒), ~¼ cup. So the Qing dynasty cookbook specifies a ‘sweet rice wine’ – we just decided to use the highest quality rice wine we had available. Now, you probably/definitely wouldn’t be able to get the rice wine that we use in the video… it’s a Cantonese rice wine from Foshan called ‘Yubingshao’ (“玉冰烧“, by far my personal favorite Chinese liquor, as an aside) that’s non-trivial to source even in China. Just use whatever you got on hand that you like – sake would work great, a high grade huangjiu like huadiao would also be perfect, or you could even use Shaoxing wine.
  5. Light soy sauce (生抽), 2 tbsp. To be added near the end of cooking.
  6. Sugar, 1 tsp. Added together with the soy sauce.
  7. Green onion (葱), green part only, ~3 sprigs. Cut into two inch sections.

Process, Fried tofu ‘braised’ with shrimp

So I’m putting ‘braised’ in quotes because using the English terminology ‘braise’ doesn’t really make a hell of a lot of sense with tofu. It’s just sorta the go-to translation for the Chinese word ‘men’ (simmering in sauce) and there’s enough similarities that you could kinda think of it in that way.

  1. Rinse the dried shrimp to get the dust off, then simmer in two cups water – covered – for one hour. This is the first time I’ve personally seen this method, and holy hell… I was just blown away by the end result. Those Qing dynasty cooks knew their shit. The end result of this stuff after an hour long simmer is basically just concentrated umami juice. The first time I tasted this dish I just couldn’t believe that there was no MSG added in here… it’s that rich in glutamate.
  2. Cut and fry the tofu in accordance to steps #1-4 above. With the obvious exception of cutting up the white-part-of-the-green-onion and slicing the shallots. This dish’ll only have some green onion sections that we toss in near the end.
  3. Once the tofu is nice and golden brown on both sides, add in the shrimp, the shrimp liquid, and the rice wine. Cover and ‘braise’ for 20 minutes on medium low. This’s gunna (1) let the raw alcohol bite of the rice wine cook out (2) infuse the tofu with that delicious shrimp umami liquid. Random note that glutamic acid is water and not alcohol soluble – the rice wine is more for taste and to help bring out the other flavonoids in the dish.
  4. After 20 minutes, add in the soy sauce and sugar. Let that continue to cook down on medium-low for a 2-3 minutes, flipping the tofu to make sure both sides absorb the sauce. So what you’re looking for is the liquid to be about 90% reduced/absorbed into the tofu. This should take 15-25 minutes. Add in the soy sauce and sugar, making sure the sugar dissolves into the liquid. Let that reduce and absorb into the tofu, flipping to make sure both sides get that delicious liquid.
  5. Once the sauce is completely absorbed, shut off the heat and mix in the green onion. The green onion here is mostly for fragrance and color.

A note on how to make lard:

Now the way I make lard isn’t necessarily interesting, or have any special Chinese technique to it or anything. If you find it confusing, there’s a million tutorials out there about how to make it.

Get some pork fat… cut any little scraps of meat you might see off it, and wash away any blood. Cut the fat into rough cubes, put em in a large pot, and pour some water in until it’s just covering the cubes. Put it on a high enough heat to get the water to a real hefty simmer. Once the water’s basically evaporated (after ~20 minutes), lower the heat to low to let the oil render out from the pork fat (should take 40-60 minutes). Stir periodically to make sure the fat’s not sticking to the bottom.

Once you get a solid chunk of oil and the fat’s shrunk significantly, strain the oil. Slightly cheaper for us than other sorts of non-blended oils, and a really tasty oil to fry with. Supposedly healthier than butter too (though I guess that’s not saying much).

Note on the differences between this adaptation and the original recipe from the Qing dynasty cookbook

So besides which rice wine we used, the biggest adaptation made here was how long we cooked the tofu. The original recipe skips the first dried-shrimp-simmering step, and after frying adds the water and dried shrimp directly to the rice-wine-based-tofu braising liquid. From there, they call for simmering the tofu for two hours.

This kinda contradicted everything we’re used to when it comes to simmering tofu. So when Steph was playing around with this, she decided to make tofu the normal way and separate out the simmering of the dried shrimp into its own step. If you wanna give the original recipe a go, feel free to try simmering the tofu for that long… we’re still kinda curious what it’d be like.

(If you’re wondering the name of the old cookbook, it’s called “随园食单” if you can read Chinese and wanna check it out.)

Link to discussion over on /r/cooking: