Kung Pao Tofu

Navigating the myriad of Chinese food dishes and sauces can be positively dizzying.

The names of the dishes only tell a fraction of the story.

For instance, the ingredient list shows that “beef and broccoli” for instance has much more than just that. Sweet and sour involves a little more work than just combining something sweet and something sour. And Kung Pao doesn’t really tell you anything, does it? // says nothing about what it is.

It’s worth mentioning, as I have before elsewhere, that authentic Chinese cuisine and American Chinese cuisine — which is literally everything we refer to as “Chinese” within the United States — are two different things. While there are similarities between the two, there are many differences and adaptations that have been made to sensationalize and suit American palates.

For the sake of clarity, I refer to Chinese from here on, it’s American Chinese.

In my mind, there are five essential Chinese dishes for any of our culinary rolodexes: General Tso’s, Sesame, Orange, Mongolian, and Kung Pao. They represent a solid assortment of tastes, and certainly much of what gets ordered when we go out. There are more, but these are the essentials.

While they all tend to share common base ingredients of soy sauce and garlic, it’s the peanuts that make Kung Pao unique. Though we often think of peanuts as being more popular in other asian cuisines — Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian, and Vietnamese — they do make their way into a few Chinese dishes here and there; and Kung Pao is one of those.

The typical sauce is made up of soy sauce, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and vinegar, along with Szechuan peppercorns for the characteristic heat. I always find it fascinating to recall that peppercorns aren’t even from peppers; they’re the berries of the prickly ash tree, a member of the citrus family.

Add in vegetables — possibly bell peppers, onions (white onions, or green also), zucchini, carrots, celery, or any combination — chili peppers, and of course peanuts to complete the dish out.

For the quickest, easiest version, just take some pressed extra firm tofu, sauté it in some oil to crisp up the outside, add the sauce and vegetables and cook to your desired level of tenderness. If you prefer a more complex texture, my _________ fried tofu pairs excellently with this and not only gives the tofu a seasoned coating but also something for more of the sauce to stick to and infuse with flavor.

Kung Pao Tofu

Ingredients
  

Sauce (wet)

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2 tbsp hoisin sauce
  • 2 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 tbsp Chinese cooking wine Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • 2 tsp fresh ginger minced
  • 2 tsp sesame oil

Sauce (dry)

  • 1 tbsp cornstarch
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1-2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes adjust according to your heat preference
  • 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns ground (optional for authentic flavor)

Instructions
 

  • Combine Sauces and Seasonings: In a mixing bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, hoisin sauce, rice vinegar, Chinese cooking wine, sugar, and sesame oil.
  • Prepare Cornstarch Slurry: In a small bowl, dissolve the cornstarch in 1/3 cup of water to make a slurry. This will help thicken the sauce later.
  • Mix Aromatics: Add the minced garlic, minced ginger, red pepper flakes, and ground Sichuan peppercorns (if using) to the sauce mixture. Stir well to combine all ingredients.
  • Cook the Sauce: Pour the sauce mixture into a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
  • Thicken the Sauce: While the sauce is simmering, stir in the cornstarch slurry. Continue to cook and stir until the sauce thickens and becomes glossy, which should take about 3-5 minutes.
  • Adjust Seasoning: Taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings if necessary. You may want to add more sugar for sweetness, vinegar for tartness, or red pepper flakes for heat.
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