Vegan Tofu-Fried Tofu

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On Friday I had my first professional driving lesson in at least ten years. People have been trying to teach me to drive one way or another since 2001; people have failed. I could not be car-broken. And in a nation of drivers, where 97% of society and its amenities are inaccessible without a car, this was eventually going to bite me. Learning about things like anxiety and ADHD has certainly helped me understand why I might not have taken smoothly to driving, but it still didn’t make me any more inclined to get behind the wheel. What I wanted was a Matrix-style chip in the back of my neck, uploading the necessary software to turn me into a driver – failing that, some kind of magic-adjacent experience, such as being hit over the head or electrocuting myself or being bitten by a spider. I did not want to do the work! Nor, should I! Why can’t society bend to me, why must we prioritise driving when it’s so dangerous and environmentally terrible and also something I can’t do?

Ten months of avoidance passed after I got my learners license (again) and then I finally booked a lesson. Unlike the other pros, this instructor was kind and patient and had heard of anxiety and didn’t just bark at me to drive into oncoming traffic; after 50 minutes concentrated figure-eighting around the nearby town, making serviceable left turns and even a few right turns, I felt unbelievably powerful and hyperactive, high on the absence of failure, almost too powerful – like, wait, can I drive now? Should I go on a cross-country road trip right now? Probably, right? Just to be safe?

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I bring this up for reasons twofold: firstly, I just wanted to boast that I bravely committed to learning to drive; secondly, if you’ve ever been suspicious of tofu – which I don’t respect but I do understand because we live in a society and tofu has been poorly treated in the public image – then perhaps this recipe could be the kind of successful interaction to finally make you feel like a person who not only enjoys tofu but frantically celebrates it at any opportunity. (I also recommend Bettina Makalintal’s crispy glazed tofu, I will never be without a bag of potato starch ever again.)

The recipe is Tofu-Fried Tofu, and it’s spectacularly good and inspired by Brooks Headley and his Superiority Burger Crispy Fried Tofu Sandwich. Sometimes, no matter how established the person writing the recipe, I just physically can’t follow it, and instead, I have to scan it into my head like a pdf and never read it again but use whatever key components I can remember to make a recipe based on it. Why is this? I think it’s partly the way a lot of recipes are laid out these days, and probably partly something neurological on my part, let’s be honest. The only person I don’t do this with is Nigella Lawson – at least, not as much – and I think it’s because her recipes feel as though they’re so very already in my language – whatever changes I’d make, Nigella has probably already anticipated it.

This is my roundabout way of explaining that I’m not trying to say I’m any better than Brooks Headley but I still had to make my own version inspired by his recipe rather than following it to the letter. There’s no reason why you can’t make his recipe as it’s written, I’m sure it’s amazing, and my recipe doesn’t diverge too wildly anyway. But the recipe I made is also delicious and through some trial and error, it’s exactly where I want it to be. These errors include adding cocoa to the flour mixture (I wanted to want it, but it’s not the one) and leaving the tofu at its from-the-package thickness, making for a genuinely strenuous eating experience where you practically needed a step-ladder to scale the breadth of soy protein on your plate.

These slender triangles of tofu bathe in an aggressive marinade of pickle brine, soy milk, vegan oyster sauce or Maggi, and mustard powder – which when combined is oddly potable if not wildly delicious, I really had to bargain with myself to stop drinking it from the container while the tofu was marinating in it, I wish I were exaggerating for comic effect here but if anything I’m downplaying it. The key to the flour dredge is a ton of Chinese Five-Spice powder and ground white pepper – an inelegant ingredient but one who deserves to shine, in my opinion – and double-dunking to create pockets and crevices of crumbly coating. It’s more of a KFC-esque coating – dense and softly crisp – rather than shatteringly crunchy, especially the longer it sits, and this is obviously not a bad thing.

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Between the tanginess of the pickle brine and mustard and the bumptious yet balanced spices, this is one of the very best things you can do with tofu. It makes sense to tuck it into a burger bun (I spread the base with hummus and topped the tofu with kimchi which was a chaotic but complementary combination) but you could serve these alongside chips or on top of rice. The crucial thing is to leave yourself a few for the next day, I honestly think they taste better cold than they do at any other stage of the proceedings.

[Also – I forgot to mention this last week but I had the joy of appearing on Pip Adam’s Better off Read podcast to discuss the plot devices I employ in my poetry, the way I’m influenced by film auteurs in my fiction writing (does this make me an auteur? Maybe??) and more besides; Pip is one of my very favourite writers and it was such an honour and a thrill to speak with her about writing. It’s just really fun and I thoroughly recommend you listen to it because I’m a great podcast guest and she’s a great host!]

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Tofu-Fried Tofu

This is inspired by Brooks Headley’s recipe, and the more often you make it the less effort it will seem. I can’t tell you how delicious this is cold from the fridge the next day. Makes 12 pieces.

  • 1 x 300g (or thereabouts) block of tofu, firm or extra-firm
  • 1/3 cup brine from a jar of pickles/gherkins
  • 1/2 cup soy milk (or oat milk – I wouldn’t use anything other than these guys though)
  • 1 tablespoon mustard powder
  • 1 tablespoon vegan oyster sauce, Maggi seasoning sauce, or soy sauce
  • 2 cups flour
  • 3 tablespoons cornflour
  • 5 teaspoons Chinese Five-Spice powder
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • a large pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried celery (if you can get hold of it)
  • neutral oil, such as rice bran, for frying

1: If you have the time, freeze the tofu for at least a couple of hours and then allow it to defrost – this does something wonderful to the texture, but if you forgot or can’t be bothered – or just got home and want to eat this as soon as possible – don’t worry, it’ll still taste good with tofu straight from the fridge.

2: Place the pickle brine, soy milk, mustard powder, and vegan oyster sauce in a rectangular container a little larger than your block of tofu and whisk to combine. Drain any liquid from the tofu and slice it across diagonally, so you have four triangles, then sit each triangle on their longest side and slice through them twice with the knife flush with the flat side, so you have three of that same triangle, just a lot thinner/flatter. You’re cutting pages, not wedges. I hope that description makes sense – basically, you want to go from having those four triangles to having three matching sets of those triangles, which you can stack up again back into the original rectangle. If it still doesn’t make sense, watch the TikTok above and you’ll see how I cut it there.

3: Place the tofu into the container of marinade, stacking them up into their original rectangle shape, and leave for a couple of hours (although I’ve made this with only about half an hour of marinating and it still tasted good so once again, if you’re impatient or didn’t plan a single thing, it’ll work out.)

4: In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, cornflour, Chinese Five-Spice powder, smoked paprika, garlic, pepper, salt, and dried celery if you’re using it.

5: Drop each tofu triangle into the flour mixture, then dunk them back in the pickle marinade, then coat in flour again. This is messy, there’s no way around it, but if you just use one hand it’s at least contained, you know?

6: Pour a thin but definite layer of oil into a large saucepan and once it’s hot – when bubbles form around a spoon or whatever you stick into it – cook the tofu slices for a few minutes on each side, flipping twice. Also, this might sound weird but if you have any leftover flour mixture, stir in a little marinade and fry this dough in the hot oil too as a little cook’s treat. It’s really good and I don’t care!

7: Transfer the cooked tofu to a rack with absorbent paper on it and either use immediately, or you can store them in an airtight container in the fridge and briefly fry on each side to heat through. They’re best either straight from the pan or dead cold from the fridge, but this in-between stage is also very commendable.

Notes: As you can see, there are some aspects of this recipe you can be loose about and some which I think are very important. I’d like to emphasise that you absolutely cannot leave out the Chinese Five-Spice and the pepper has to be white – but if you only have a quarter of a cup of pickle brine left in your jar or if you accidentally pour half a cup, nothing bad is going to happen. Sometimes I add a little pinch of baking powder to the flour mixture, this time I forgot, either way is fine. Also, I realise two cups of flour sounds like a lot, but you end up needing it all to confidently double-dunk the tofu. Finally: I don’t know if you can bake or air fry this and I don’t want to find out! The oil is as important an ingredient as anything else on the list!

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music lately:

For The Love of Ivy by The Gun Club. Rhyming “hell” with “hell” four times in a row? Going loud then quiet then loud? That’s the ticket!

Matthew and Son by Yusuf/Cat Stevens (he goes by both names these days, I checked) this song is disarmingly goofy and has the distinct air of being accompanied by a high school orchestra and it’s nowhere near as cool as any of his other songs so naturally, it’s my favourite thing that he’s ever done. It is what it is!

When Love Goes Wrong, Nothing Goes Right, by Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell from the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I haven’t seen this film in years but was reminded – on TikTok! – of how charming this number is and how crackling the chemistry is between Monroe and Russell. Their harmonies when the song speeds up a notch – “a man goes out, gets high as a kite” – are glorious. I will absolutely be rewatching this film soon.

PS: If you like my writing and wish to support me directly, there’s no better way than by stepping behind the claret velvet VIP curtain of my Patreon. Recipes, reviews, poetry, updates, secrets, stories, all yours on a monthly basis.

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