Sichuan-style pan fried tofu in ‘fish’ fragrant sauce

Sichuan-style pan fried tofu in 'fish' fragrant sauce (Vegan)

I’ve just returned from a road trip through rural NSW and, after a week of eating road food, I’m more than happy to take a break from eggs, cheese, bread and potatoes for a while. When I’m away from home and not able to cook for myself, I find myself craving simple rice-based meals like this braised tofu dish or anything with lots of greens – all the things that I miss intensely when I’m on the road.

Sichuan-style pan fried tofu in 'fish' fragrant sauce (Vegan)

I’ve made different variations of braised tofu over the years (including the Deborah Madison version here) but this ‘fish’ fragrant sauce with it’s spicy, sweet and sour accents is my new favorite. I don’t really know why this is called ‘fish delicious’ sauce, except that the aromatics are those traditionally paired with fish, but this ‘fish’ fragrant sauce seems to be more commonly used with eggplant (aubergine) or tofu. The tofu is traditionally deep fried in this dish but there is no way I could be bothered deep frying tofu for a simple family meal. I pan fry the tofu for this dish with a technique I got from the Queen of Tofu, Andrea Nyguen’s Viet World Kitchen. Andrea soaks her tofu in salty hot water before patting it dry and frying. There’s some science behind this technique because salty water not only refreshes the tofu but expels the excess water so the tofu is drier and, hence, crispier when you pan fry it.

Served with rice and greens, this makes a quick and easy mid-week meal, which even my son enjoys.

Sichuan-style pan fried tofu in 'fish' fragrant sauce (vegan)

Pan fried tofu in ‘fish’ fragrant sauce

Adapted from ‘Deep fried aubergine in ‘fish’ fragrant sauce’ in Every Grain of Rice, by Fuschia Dunlop

  • 500 grams (1 pound) of firm but tender tofu
  • 2¼ teaspoons salt
  • 3 cups of  very hot or just boiled water
  • 1½ tablespoons of Sichuan chilli bean paste
  • Oil for pan frying
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
  • 200mls stock (see below)
  • 2 teaspoons caster sugar
  • 1–2 teaspoons of corn flour, mixed with 1 tablespoon of cold water (depending on how thickened you like your sauce)
  • 2 teaspoons Chinkiang vinegar (or malt vinegar or balsamic vinegar)
  • ½ red pepper cut into strips (optional)
  • 4 fresh shitake mushrooms, de-stemmed and cut into thin slices OR 3 dried mushrooms soaked in hot water for half an hour, de-stemmed and sliced (optional)
  • 4 tablespoons of finely sliced spring onion greens.
  1. Cut tofu in squares 3 x 3 x 1cm squares and then into triangles. Dissolve salt in hot water and pour over tofu and let sit for 15 minutes. Drain off water and pat and squeeze tofu dry with paper towels.
  2. Heat cast iron frying pan and cover with oil. Pan fry tofu triangles on each side until golden. Drain on kitchen paper.
  3. In a wok or stir fry pan, heat 3 tablespoons of oil. Add chilli bean paste and stir fry until oil is red and fragrant. Add garlic, ginger, mushrooms and red pepper, and fry until  ginger and garlic is fragrant and pepper and mushrooms are sauteed at the edges. Take care not to have the heat too high, you don’t want to burn the seasonings, but gently sizzle them.
  4. Add stock and sugar and bring to a gentle simmer. Add tofu and simmer gently until peppers are just tender and tofu has soaked up the flavours.
  5. Add corn flour mixture to sauce, mix through and gently simmer until sauce thickens. Add vinegar, spring onion greens, stir through and serve immediately with rice and greens.

Serves 3–4 with rice and greens.

A quick, simple but savory stock can be made with light soy sauce (tamari) and sesame oil. Season 1 litre of hot water with 2½ teaspoons of tamari and ½ teaspoon sesame oil.

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