Salt and Pepper dishes (or as we call it at home, Chilli and Salt dishes) are very popular in Cantonese cuisine, high in flavour and savouriness with a punch of chilli heat. You might be surprised that making your own Salt and Pepper Tofu is surprisingly easily to do at home.
Tofu’s got a bit of a bad reputation. It’s associated with blandness in appearance and taste and it’s only for the health conscious. But tofu is a fantastic food that is high in protein, cheap and not difficult to work with at all. I’d much prefer working with tofu than with a piece of chicken and sometimes I’d much rather eat tofu than chicken.
Tofu blocks are made by preparing soy milk from pressing and crushing soybeans with water. Then nigari, which is a coagulant, curdles the soy milk into water and the curds, which is the tofu. It’s then compressed in a mould to firm it up and the longer it is compressed for, the more water is released and the firmer the final tofu. Because of this, there are lots of different firmness of the tofu and each of them has their own purpose.
Soft block tofu is used in both sweet and savoury dishes. The sweet tofu fa is one of my favourite desserts. But in savoury cooking, it can be deep-fried so that the crisp outside contrasts with the soft and silky centre. But the one that is most versatile is the firm block tofu. It holds its shape much more readily than soft block tofu and so can be used in soups and broths, as the Chinese often do, simply pan-fried, thrown into a stir-fry as well as deep-fried. I think it’s also a lot safer to use the firm tofu for my Salt and Pepper Tofu because it will hold its shape and once drained well, won’t spit in the pan which could be dangerous in a domestic kitchen. But do not confuse it with silken tofu!
I prepare my tofu by draining it well before cutting it into 1 inch cubes and then tossing into cornflour. I then panfry the tofu in my wok until it is crisp on all sides. Whilst it doesn’t stay crisp after tossing it in the vegetables and spice mix, it does absorb a whole lot of that flavour and provides a slight textural contrast that you would get if you were to deep fry soft tofu for example.
But coming back to the salt and pepper itself, I found a way to recreate the flavour of the takeaway dishes and it does involve using quite a few spices and different ingredients but the savouriness, almost umami, quality of this dish is addicting. I recommend going to an Asian supermarket and buying your spices there, it costs probably around 50 – 70p to buy a 100g bag of spices which lasts ages and is much cheaper than your supermarket which sells the jars.
This recipe will be enough to serve 4 people.
500g pack of firm tofu
60 – 75g cornflour
3 tbsp sunflower oil, plus 1 tbsp
1 tsp coriander seeds
½ tsp cumin seeds
4 whole dried chillies, sliced
2 tsp garlic powder
½ tsp white pepper
½ tsp table salt
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp dried chilli flakes (you can adjust this according to your heat tolerance)
1 onion, sliced
A large handful of spinach leaves, roughly sliced
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
2 tsp sesame oil
Salad leaves, noodles or rice, to serve
Cut out the pack of tofu and drain away all of the liquid. Then transfer to the blocks of tofu onto kitchen roll to dry as much as possible. Then slice the tofu blocks into 1 inch cubes; the pack I bought has 3 blocks and each block can be sliced in 2 halves, giving 16 cubes each.
Heat a frying pan or a wok over a medium high heat. Once it’s heated up, then add in the 3 tablespoons of oil. Transfer the cornflour into a dish and then toss the cubes of tofu well in the cornflour and place onto a plate ready to pan fry; they sort of resemble marshmallows but try not to do this too far in advance, more than 2 minutes before you are ready to fry.
Place the coated cubes of tofu gently in the hot oil and still on the medium high heat, fry the tofu on each side until the tofu is coated in a light golden crispy layer. Drain the pieces on another plate lined with some kitchen roll and repeat until all the tofu cubes are fried.
Remove any excess oil from the wok and then throw in the coriander seeds and cumin seeds until they are browned and toasted. Remove them and place them onto a chopping board and use a knife to crush the seeds up. Add to a small bowl with the chopped dried chillies, garlic powder, white pepper, salt, ground ginger and cinnamon and the dried chilli flakes.
In the same wok, put the oil over a high heat and when hot, add in the onion and stir around to absorb the flavour from the wok. Then add in the spices in one go with the spinach leaves and toss around to wilt the spinach leaves and colour the onions slightly.
Add in your tofu cubes and toss the contents of the wok to coat the tofu in the spice mix and heat the tofu through. Once they are coated and hot through, add in the soy sauce and sesame oil and give it a few final tosses before transferring to a plate to serve.