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Caramelized Tofu with Snow Peas 0

Posted on April 06, 2018 by Sahar

I like tofu. There, I said it.

I honestly can’t remember the first time I ate tofu, but it was probably in Pad Thai.  It’s delicious on its own as well as taking on the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with. I like to think of it as one of the great blank canvases of the culinary world.

Tofu is, in the simplest sense, boiled soya beans that are drained of their “whey” and compressed into cakes (much like cheese making). They are an important source of protein in many Asian countries (most notably China and Japan) as well as for vegetarians, vegans, and anyone else who just enjoys it.

I won’t go too much into the types and uses here (because that would require its own post), but Tofupedia is a great resource.

Another ingredient I use in this recipe that some of you may not have used, or even heard of, is Sichuan (Szechuan) Peppercorns. The pepper grows in the Sichuan (southwestern) region of China.  It is the small fruit of the plant that is dried to become the peppercorns.  It has more of a numbing rather than a heating effect in the mouth.

Though the peppercorns are now quite easy to find in any market that caters to the Asian (primarily Chinese) community, there was a ban on Sichuan peppercorns from being imported in the US from 1968 to 2005, because they were found to be capable of carrying citrus canker.  It is bacterial disease, which is very difficult to control, could potentially harm the foliage and fruit of citrus crops in the U.S. It was never an issue of harm in human consumption. The import ban was only loosely enforced until 2002. In 2005, the USDA and FDA lifted the ban, provided the peppercorns are heated to around 70 °C (158 °F) to kill any canker bacteria before importing. (From Wikipedia)

As a side note, I was able to find, with some extra digging, Sichuan peppercorns in cities where there was a Chinatown (i.e. NYC) even during the ban.

Sichuan Peppercorns.

If you don’t have access to these (although they are readily available online), you can use a combination of ground white pepper and cayenne (about a 3:1 ratio – 3/4 tsp. ground white pepper, 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper). It will have more of a heating than numbing effect, but it is a decent substitute.

I also use a rather unusual ingredient in this dish, Black Soy.  It is simply dark soy that’s been fermented with sugar to give the sauce a thick consistency and a sweet flavor very close to molasses.  it is used primarily in Thai cooking and as a condiment. You can find it in most groceries that cater to the Asian community. If you have molasses sitting in your pantry (and I think most of us do), that will work just fine as a substitute.

My well used black soy sauce bottle.

Again, I won’t go into the many varieties of soy sauce because, again, that would require its own post. However, Serious Eats, being an excellent resource, of course has a great primer on soy sauce.

The final not-so-everyday ingredient I use is Five-Spice Powder. It is Chinese in origin with primarily ground Star Anise, ground Fennel Seed, ground Cloves, and ground Cinnamon; the varying ingredients are ground Sichuan Peppercorns, ground Ginger, and ground Cardamom. It is easy to find on any spice aisle in most grocery stores. However, if it’s not something you would use regularly, I would suggest you buy just what you would need in small quantities if your grocery store or spice shop has a bulk section.


As always, play with the ratios and the ingredients.  Make this your own. While this is a vegan recipe, if don’t like tofu (or any other type of meat substitute), you can use chicken (preferably dark meat) or pork in this as well. If you want to keep the recipe vegan and don’t like/have tofu, you can use thickly sliced seitan (make sure it’s plain). I’d even try this dish with shiitake mushrooms. Hmm…

As a final note before getting into the actual recipe, I have to credit the great Deborah Madison for giving me the inspiration for this dish. It is, admittedly, a variation on a dish from her book This Can’t Be Tofu. I’ve modified the recipe for my own tastes, but her original recipe is definitely worth a try. Plus, the book is a lot of fun. It’s been one of my go-to books for almost 20 years.


Now, on to the recipe:

The Ingredients:

The Ingredients

1 lb. Snow Peas, stringed

While the stem & string of the snow pea is edible, the texture leaves something to be desired. so, I prefer to string the peas.

To string, pinch the stem end of the pea and gently pull down along the straight side.

Stringed snow pea. Simply discard or compost the stem & string.

1 lb. extra firm Tofu, cut into 8 large pieces and drained

Draining & weighing down the tofu. I like to compress it as I drain to get a denser texture. I really only recommend this method with firm or extra firm tofu.

Vegetable, grapeseed, peanut, or coconut oil for frying


Caramel Sauce

Sauce Ingredients from top left: chili oil, black soy sauce, vegetable broth, soy sauce, brown sugar, ginger, five-spice powder, sesame oil, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic

3 tbsp. Black Soy Sauce or Molasses

3 tbsp. Soy Sauce (I generally use a dark soy; it’s slightly thicker and less salty)

2 tsp. Sesame Oil

2 tsp. Chili Oil

2 tbsp. brown sugar

1 tsp. Five-Spice Powder

1 tsp. Sichuan Peppercorns, ground

After grinding.

3 cloves Garlic, minced (approx. 1 tbsp.)

1 tbsp. minced Ginger

2 tbsp. Vegetable Broth or Water


After you have drained the tofu, cut it into serving size pieces.  (Whatever size you like. As you can see in the ingredients photo, I’ve cut it into large triangles.) Set aside.

Mix together the caramel sauce ingredients – except the vegetable broth or water – in a small bowl.  Set aside.

The caramel sauce ingredients ready to go.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. When the skillet is hot, add in enough oil to fill it up to 1/4″ deep.  Test the heat of the oil (since it is relatively shallow) by adding a small piece of the tofu to the skillet; if it immediately sizzles, the oil is hot enough.

Frying the tofu. Be sure not to overcrowd the skillet. Not only will the tofu become greasy because the temperature of the skillet will be too low, tofu likes to stick together making it difficult to cook evenly or turn over in the oil.

Add the tofu, in batches (you don’t want to overcrowd the skillet), and fry on both sides until the tofu is a nice golden brown.  Drain the tofu on paper towels and set aside.

Drain all but 2 tablespoons of the oil from the skillet. (Be sure to carefully wipe off any oil that spills down the sides and bottom of the skillet if necessary.)  Place the skillet back on the heat and turn it up to medium-high.

Add the garlic and ginger and quickly cook for about 30 seconds.  Add the snow peas and stir constantly until they are cooked through and lightly softened, about 3-5 minutes.  Remove the skillet from the heat, place the snow peas in a bowl, and set aside.

Cooking the snow peas with the garlic & ginger.

Turn the heat back down to medium, add another tablespoon of oil to the skillet, and add the caramel sauce mix.  Stir constantly and cook until the syrup begins to thicken, about 2-3 minutes. (Take care to be sure the sauce doesn’t burn.) Add the vegetable broth or water and stir together.

Cooking the caramel sauce. Be sure to stir constantly so it doesn’t burn. You just want it to thicken slightly.

Turn up the heat to medium-high and add the tofu to the caramel sauce.  Toss in the sauce until it becomes coated.

Cooking the tofu in the caramel sauce.

Add in the snow peas to the skillet and continue tossing until everything is coated in the sauce and is heated through.

Adding the snow peas.

Serve immediately over rice (brown or white), noodles, any whatever grain you prefer.


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