You may be thinking that kung pao dishes like this kung pao tofu fall within the realm of American classics like General Tso’s Chicken––an invention of Chinese immigrants to please American palates that has no real basis in authentic regional Chinese cooking.
It’s true that Kung Pao is a staple in Westernized Chinese cuisine, but you may be surprised to know that Kung Pao is actually a real thing that people in China would recognize! (Unlike General Tso’s chicken, which I’m pretty sure no one in China has ever heard of.) The dish was originally made with chicken, and it hails from Sichuan Province, where chilies and numbing Sichuan peppercorns reign as everyone’s favorite flavors.
What Makes It a Kung Pao Dish? Peanuts!
In addition to the chilis and Sichuan peppercorns, the main distinguishing ingredient that makes a dish recognizable as kung pao is peanuts. Peanuts also happen to be the reason why I love this kung pao tofu. They’re crunchy, buttery, and nutty, and work perfectly alongside the crispy pan-fried tofu.
Peanuts have also been getting a lot of love by food scientists and researchers lately, who have officially dubbed it a superfood! As the kind of person who regularly eats peanut butter off of a spoon as a snack, this is wonderful news.
Traditionally, making kung pao starts with shelled blanched peanuts (i.e. the pink skins are removed). The peanuts are toasted in a pan or a wok before being added to the dish, so they’re at their most fragrant. In the context of this kung pao tofu, the oils released from the peanuts during the toasting process also flavor the tofu when it’s subsequently pan-fried in the same pan.
This step really brings out that toasted peanut flavor in the overall dish, and it’s totally worth the trouble. That said, if you really can’t find blanched peanuts at your local grocery store, you can use already roasted unsalted peanuts (make sure they’re unsalted, or it’ll throw off the saltiness of the dish!).
If you’re looking for more kung pao goodness, check out our kung pao chicken recipe, and also another vegan/vegetarian favorite, my mom’s kung pao mushrooms. This kung pao tofu, however, might be my favorite version yet.
Kung Pao Tofu Recipe Instructions
Remove the firm tofu from the plastic carton onto a plate and let it sit for 10 minutes to allow the excess liquid to drain.
Next, place the tofu on a flat surface lined with clean kitchen towels or paper towels and pat the sides dry. Transfer to a cutting board.
Cut the tofu into ½-inch cubes and allow them to continue to dry out for a few minutes.
Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, combine 1/3 cup cornstarch, garlic powder, onion powder, 5 spice powder, salt and water until a thick batter forms.
Add the tofu and gently toss in the batter until thoroughly coated.
Prepare the sauce by mixing together the soy sauce, dark soy sauce, sugar, salt, rice vinegar, sesame oil, 2 teaspoons cornstarch and 2/3 cup warm water. Stir the sauce until everything is dissolved and combined.
Add 1/4 cup of peanut oil (or vegetable oil) to a medium to large nonstick frying pan over low heat and add 1 cup of the blanched shelled peanuts.
Stir the peanuts in the wok for 5 minutes until they are golden brown.
You’ll notice the peanuts releasing more oil into the pan.
Remove the peanuts from the pan, and set aside, leaving behind any oil in the pan.
Next, adjust the heat to medium, and gently place each cube of tofu in the pan.
Let the tofu fry for about 5 minutes, or until the bottoms are browned. A good non-stick pan really helps this process along.
Turn the tofu with a spatula (they’ll stick together slightly, which may make it easier to flip a bunch of pieces all at once).
Let the other side fry for another 5 minutes until the bottom is browned again.
At this point, use a spatula to gently separate any tofu pieces that may be sticking together. Set the tofu aside.
Use 1 ½ tablespoons of the remaining oil from frying the peanuts and tofu to coat your wok. Add the carrots and stir-fry over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the ginger and dried chili peppers.
I really like the addition of carrots to this dish, because they’re slightly sweet and work as a great flavor contrast to the other prominent flavors of spice and saltiness. They also have a similar texture to the peanuts and are easier to find than water chestnuts, which are also sometimes used in kung pao dishes.
Toast the ginger and chili peppers for about 20 seconds and add the garlic and scallions.
Stir-fry for another 20 seconds. Stir up the pre-mixed sauce with a chopstick or spoon since the cornstarch is likely to have settled, and add the sauce to the wok.
Turn the heat up to high, and bring the sauce to a simmer.
Once the sauce begins to thicken and reduce, add the tofu and peanuts.
Toss the tofu and peanuts into the sauce until everything is coated. Keep stir-frying until the sauce has reduced and is clinging to the tofu and peanuts. At this point, you can stir in the Sichuan peppercorn powder, or you can sprinkle it on top. Serve with steamed rice.