Many moons ago when I was in primary school, street food was frowned upon. Schools derided vendors for lacking basic hygiene standards and blocking their entrance, while parents were worried about unknown ingredients and harmful additives. As kids, these concerns did not trump the little treats they saw when classes ended and the school gate opened. And often, what was forbidden then became irresistible (to me), especially when I was loaded with savings from my pocket money.
At the corner where my parents picked me up, there was a man that sold shaved ice, topped with fruit syrup and condense milk. His entire business rested on his motorbike, which carried a cooler and a handheld device to crush ice. The end-product did not resemble these snow cones children have today, but it was good enough as a vessel for the sweet and refreshing syrup to shine through. Opposite him was a lady behind a simmering cauldron of soup full of shredded chicken, corn and quail eggs. A small appetizer before lunch wouldn’t hurt. Elsewhere, a twentysomething girl sold fresh-cut seasonal fruits. She knew her way around knives, peeling mango with an incredible speed and slicing watermelon into uniform wedges. The fruit line-up sat proudly in the glass display cupboard, their juices glistened under the scorching sun.
Late afternoons, a lady sold an assortment of fried goods from her small cart and some low plastic stools for customers to sit. Among the most popular were fish cake and beef balls. Nevertheless, my favorite was the tofu (it was also the cheapest). Oh the appeal of fried food! The crust was golden and crispy, protecting the moist and piping hot flesh inside. Dipping these cubes into the salty garlicky hoisin sauce was satisfying. I wished my parents would have forgotten to pick me up, so I could just sit there and revel in my own guilty pleasure.
Nowadays I crave crispy tofu sometimes. But as the responsible and health-conscious adult that I have become (annoyingly admittedly thanks to my husband), I try to avoid deep-frying as much as I can. The closest I get is pan-frying cornstarch-coated tofu, until recently I discovered the wonder of baking it from a New York Times recipe. The key step is to remove as much liquid as you can from the tofu by sandwiching it between two layers of paper towels and heavy books. This is when the good old Harold McGee book comes in handy. Baking takes longer than pan-frying, but it doesn’t need much tending to. You just need to flip the pieces once halfway to ensure they are browned evenly. What’s even better is that you can bake a big batch and save the extra in the freezer for the next use. These tofu cubes are good as snacks on their own and they can also be used in other stir-fried dishes with gravy, given how well they are absorbing other flavors.
- Both medium-firm and extra-firm tofu worked. The latter needed less time to crisp, so check the oven in the last 5 minutes and take the tray out to avoid over-drying.
- I used flavorless oil and no other spices for the coating as I wanted to pair this with hoisin sauce. You can add in garlic powder, sesame seeds or other dried herbs for a flavored snack.
Adapted from The New York Times recipe for Spicy Rice Noodles With Crispy Tofu and Spinach
What you’ll need:
For the tofu
400 gr extra-firm tofu
2 tbsp grapeseed oil
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 tbsp panko
1/2 tsp salt
For the garlicky hoisin sauce
2 tsp grapeseed oil
2 tsp minced garlic
2 tbsp hoisin sauce
4 tbsp water
1 stalk of scallion, thinly sliced
Roughly chopped unsalted roasted peanuts
- On a chopping board, place the block of tofu between two layers of paper towel, pressed down with a heavy book. Let it rest for at least 15 minutes. Meanwhile, pre-heat the oven to 400F.
- Once the tofu block is dry, cut it into even cubes.
- Combine oil, corn starch, panko and salt in a bowl. Toss in the tofu cubes to coat them evenly.
- Place the cubes in a single layer on a baking tray lined with parchment paper and bake for 35-40 minutes. Take the tray out and turn the cubes once after 20 minutes.
- In a small sauce pan, sauté the minced garlic with 2 teaspoons of oil until fragrant.
- Add in the hoisin sauce and water at once and reduce the heat to medium-low until the liquid reduces to half.
- Once the tofu cubes are baked, toss them in the sauce.
- Serve hot and sprinkle with the chopped scallion and crush peanuts.