Kung Pao tofu (宫保豆腐) is an improvised dish from the famous Szechuan cuisine Kung Pao chicken. It is an excellent vegetarian dish for those who do not eat meat but want to appreciate the same flavor of the famed Kung Pao chicken.
This recipe is based on the kung pao chicken on this blog, which I published sometimes ago. There are some changes because cooking tofu is different from chicken. I also added some bell peppers to make it more colorful and give some fresh and crunchy texture to the dish.
At first, I thought it is an Americanized Chinese cuisine. However, I found a large collection of Kung Pao tofu videos on the Chinese language video platform 西瓜视频. Most of the original Chinese used cucumber and carrots instead of bell pepper. I choose to use bell peppers because it is more common in western cooking since the recipe is in English.
Here are the steps on how to prepare the Kung Pao tofu.
1. Marinate the tofu
I discovered marination is an essential step to infuse flavor into the tofu.
Unlike meat, tofu does not have a strong flavor by itself, but it has a unique texture to absorb any flavoring added to it.
I marinated the tofu with light and dark soy sauce. Tofu does not absorb flavor well and requires at least 2 to 3 hours to let the soy sauce penetrate it. The time required also depends on the size and thickness of the tofu pieces.
It is vital to use hard or extra hard tofu. If the tofu you purchase is not firm enough, place a chopping board on top of the block of tofu, and then put a heavy skillet on it for 15 minutes. The weight of the skillet and the chopping board help press out the excess water from the tofu to make it firmer.
- Cut the firm tofu into half-inch thick squares.
- Marinate with dark and light soy sauce for 2 hours, then drain off the extra marinade.
2. Constitute the Kung Pao sauce
The kung pao sauce is a mixture of a combination of Chinese seasonings. You can refer to the whole list of ingredients in the recipe at the bottom of this article. There are many variations of the ingredients, but soy sauce, black vinegar, and sugar are the main ones. You can purchase black vinegar in most of the Chinese grocery shops. It has a different translation in English (Zhenjiang vinegar / Chinkiang vinegar), and the original Chinese name is called 镇江醋.
There is no unique technique involved in the preparation. You can add these ingredients separately into the pan while cooking. However, it is easier to work with if you pre constitute it because stir-frying is a quick process.
We premade different sauces in the restaurant to minimize the time required to fulfill the orders. It also helps standardize quality because more than one kitchen staff is responsible for one item.
I have added some chili bean paste (doubanjiang), but you can omit it. Szechuan peppercorn is another ingredient that you can remove, but both items should always be included to cook up an authentic Szechuan flavor.
3. The aromatics and vegetables
Ginger, garlic, scallion, and dried red chili are the essential aromatics for Kung Pao tofu.
Cut the ginger into thin slices, and garlic should be coarsely chopped. Slice the white section of the scallion into short segments, and reserve the green part for garnishing.
Dried red chili is the must-have ingredient for Kung Pao tofu. It is a spicy dish by definition, so if you omit the chili, you can no longer call it a kung pao dish.
Dried red chili is the most common type of chili for Kung Pao tofu. If it is not available, you can use chili flakes, although I do not recommend it unless there are no other choices. The taste of dried chilies is different from the fresh one, so fresh chili is not an appropriate substitute.
Cut the dry red chili into 1-inch sections. Remove as many seeds as possible.
I also include red and green bell pepper, but cucumber and carrots are other popular choices. I cut my bell pepper into the size about the same as the tofu. If you intend to use carrot, cut it into thin slices or small cubes to cook through quickly.
4. Prepare the secondary ingredients
Another necessary ingredient is peanut (or cashew nut). You can use either one, although peanuts are more prevalent in China. The nuts taste better if you toast them in a pan with a small amount of oil. Keep the nuts aside and add to the tofu right before serving.
The green section of the scallion is used as a garnish. Sprinkle the thinly sliced scallion on the tofu right before transferring it to the serving dish, and more on top before serving.
5. The cooking process
- Heat some oil in a pan. I use a non-stick pan to minimize the use of oil.
- Place the tofu in the pan, single layer. Pan-fry over medium heat until it is brown on one side. Flip over to brown the other side.
- Remove the fried tofu from the pan. Heat some oil over medium heat and then saute the ginger, garlic, scallion, and the dry chili. I prefer to add the ginger first as it needs more time to turn aromatic. The rest of the ingredients require a shorter time, especially the garlic, which can burn quickly.
- Let the aromatics sizzle for a short while, then add the kung pao sauce.
- Add the bell peppers. Have a few quick stirs and then follow by the tofu. If you use carrots, add a few tablespoons of water to cook it until it is softened.
- Mix a teaspoon of cornstarch with two tablespoons of water to form a cornstarch slurry. Add the slurry to the pan.
- Now return the fried tofu to the pan. You can flip the tofu carefully with a pair of chopsticks.
- Add the cashew nuts and sprinkle a tablespoon of scallion.
- Lastly, drizzle a tablespoon of sesame oil right before transferring it to the serving plate. It is best to serve with steamed rice.
Kung Pao Tofu
Kung Pao tofu is an improvised dish from the famous Szechuan cuisine Kung Pao chicken. It is an excellent vegetarian dish for those who do not eat meat but want to appreciate the same flavor of the famed Kung Pao chicken.
Ingredients A (marinate tofu)
- 500 g firm tofu, cut into one-inch square, 1/2 inch thick
- 2 tsp light soy sauce
- 1/4 tsp dark soy sauce
Ingredients B (sauce)
- 2 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1/4 tp dark soy sauce
- ½ tbsp black vinegar
- 2 tsp doubanjiang
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
- 1/4 tsp ground white pepper
- 1/2 tsp salt
Ingredients C (the aromatic)
- 2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
- 15g ginger, (about thumb size), cut into thin slices
- 1 tbsp ground Sichuan peppercorn
- 3 stalk scallion, the white section only
- 6 dry red chili, cut to about 2 cm length, remove seeds
Ingredients D (cornstarch slurry)
- 1 tsp cornstarch
- 2 tbsp water
- Ingredients E (others)
- 70g red bell pepper
- 70g green bell pepper
- 20 g cashew nuts
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1 stalk scallion, cut into rings
- Combine ingredients in A, marinate for 2 hours. Drained.
- Combine ingredients in B.
- Cut and prepare ingredients in C and E.
- Pan-fry the tofu with some oil over medium heat until brown on both sides. Set aside.
- Saute the ginger, garlic, scallion, and the dry chili until aromatic.
- Add the kung pao sauce. Add the bell peppers, Szechuan peppercorn. Mix ingredients in D, pour into the pan. Return the fried tofu to the pan. Stir gently.
- Add the cashew nuts and sprinkle a tablespoon of scallion. Serve.
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Soeos Szechuan Dried Chili，Dry Szechuan Pepper, Dry Chile Peppers, Sichuan Pepper, Dried Red Chilies, 4oz, (Very Mild Spicy)
Lee Kum Kee Chili Bean Sauce (Toban Djan) (13 oz.)
GreenLife CW002044-002 Healthy Nonstick Dishwasher Oven Safe Sta Soft Grip Diamond Reinforced 8" Ceramic Non-Stick Open Frypan, 8-Inch, Black
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 1395Total Fat: 83gSaturated Fat: 24gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 39gCholesterol: 202mgSodium: 5688mgCarbohydrates: 77gFiber: 9gSugar: 19gProtein: 93g
This data was provided and calculated by Nutritionix on 8/20/2020
Chris in Michigan
Saturday 24th of April 2021
This has become one of our favorite recipes. We now eat kung pao tofu almost every Friday night!
I have to make a few substitutions because not all of the ingredients are available to me. I use sweet vermouth instead of Shaoxing wine, chili-garlic paste instead of doubanjiang, and a mixture of rice vinegar and balsamic vinegar instead of black vinegar. It is absolutely delicious!
Mr. Kwan, what do you think of these substitutions?
Sunday 25th of April 2021
Hi Chirs, It is definitely a good idea to use the local ingredients as the substitute. I do that often when I cooked non-Asian food, as some ingredients are not available locally. The bottom line is it tastes good, and you love it. Cheers! KP Kwan
CHAN SOO NUI SUZAN
Monday 24th of August 2020
It look delicious
Thursday 20th of August 2020
Hi, this is KP Kwan. I am happy to see you in this comment area, as you have read through my recipe. I am pleased to reply to any questions and comments as soon as possible.