“Can you make kung pao chicken with tofu?” the customer asked the Chinese waiter. No, kung pao chicken is made with chicken, the waiter said in a huff. The waiter was likely tired of hearing requests for protein substitutes. But perhaps if the customer asked for kung pao tofu or gong bao dou fu (“gong bow dough foo”, the name in Mandarin), the waiter would have reacted differently and asked the cook to make something along the lines of this kung pao tofu recipe.
I’ve not made this in a while but was thinking of a meatless main dish after a week of recipe testing a shrimp stir-fry. You can’t simply switch tofu for chicken in the recipe because tofu deserves a little special treatment to bring out its umami goodness. That’s why I salt and fry the tofu to sear it and give it some personality and flavor. In a previous kung pao tofu recipe on this site, the tofu got seasoned with salt and coated with cornstarch. I recently found that salting, draining and pan-frying was a more direct way of making the tofu ready for prime time.
Generous amounts of garlic, ginger, chile, and Sichuan peppercorn are involved so the tofu can’t be bland and boring. Also consider the soy sauce and vinegar that inject salty, tangy earthiness. These aromatics and seasonings create the Sichuan imprint of gong bao dou fu. The original dish made with chicken is thought to have been named after Ding Baozhen, a Qing Dynasty official who held the title of Gongbao (“Palace Guardian”). You could call this Palace Guardian Tofu (or Palace Guardian Chicken, if you make the original version).
I like peanuts in kung pao for extra texture and richness. If you’re allergic to them, perhaps cashews would do? Many Chinese-American restaurants skip the peanuts, which I think is a travesty to kung pao. That’s why I call for a fair amount in this kung pao tofu recipe. Use your own judgement.
Back to the nuts and bolts! When I’m prepping ingredients for stir-frying, I organize myself a little extra. For example, items that get added into the pan at the same time can go into the same prep dish. Note that the ingredients for this kung pao tofu recipe can be readied hours in advance.
Also note that many supermarkets nowadays carry Sichuan peppercorns in the spice section. I was thrilled to see them at Whole Foods in the little boxes by Spicely. Given that development in mainstreaming Asian ingredients, this kung pao tofu recipe is makeable with grocery store ingredients. I’ve included substitutes for Asian market ingredients to help you along.
Before stir-frying, I quickly read through the recipe and line up the prepped ingredients. Once the wok is fired up, I am dumping in the ingredients, monitoring phases of cooking and just moving fluidly through the recipes. Like many stir-fries, this kung pao tofu comes together quickly. The cooking is exciting and fun, especially in a wok.
There’s a lot of aroma and oils that go into the air so make sure to open a window and run the exhaust fan. I forgot to today and sneezed big time after the chiles and peppercorns hit the oil.
I think it’s been about three years since I made this and in tweaking my kung pao tofu recipe, and my husband remarked that it’s the best one yet!
Helpful related links:
Kung Pao Tofu
Yield 4 servings
- 14 to 16 ounces extra-firm tofu
- Rounded 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3 to 4 tablespoon canola oil, divided
- 2/3 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts
Seasoning sauce 1
- 2 1/2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
Seasoning sauce 2
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Chinkiang vinegar, or 1 tablespoon balsamic and 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 1/2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce, or 1/2 teaspoon regular soy sauce plus 1/2 teaspoon molasses
- 1 1/4 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
- 8 dried red chiles, stemmed, halved lengthwise with scissors, seeds discarded
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
- Rounded 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- Rounded 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
- White part of 4 large green onions, cut to match size of peanuts
- Green part of 1 large green onion, cut to match size of peanuts
- Cut the tofu into thumb nail-size cubes (each about 3/4 inch). Sprinkle on the salt and gently toss to coat. Spread out on 2 layers of paper towel and let drain for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Heat 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil in a large wok or skillet over medium-high or high heat. When barely shimmering, add the tofu (work in batches, if needed), then cook for 1 to 2 minutes, tossing and stirring to sear and lightly brown the tofu. Transfer to bowl and set aside.
- Reheat the wok or skillet over medium-high heat until bead of water evaporates in 2 to 3 seconds. Add 2 tablespoons of oil and the peanuts, stirring constantly for 1 to 2 minutes, until fragrant; take care not to burn them. Use a slotted spoon to transfer peanuts to small plate, leaving excess oil behind.
- Stir together the ingredients for each of the seasoning sauces, keeping them separate. Set near the stove with the remaining ingredients from dried red chiles down to the green onion.
- Reheat the wok or skillet over high heat. Add the chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. Stir briskly for 20 seconds, until aromatic and crisp. Add the tofu, give things a stir, then splash in seasoning sauce 1. Let the tofu absorb the seasonings, then add the garlic, ginger and white scallion parts. Stir-fry for 1 minute more to cook through and become aromatic.
- Give seasoning sauce 2 one last stir, then add to wok. When sauce is thick and coats things, about 30 seconds, return the peanuts and add cut green scallion parts. Stir, transfer to a plate, and serve.