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For many years, and through a number of imperfect (but nonetheless tasty) beds of rice topped with sauce-slathered vegetables, I searched for the elusive secret of producing a perfect stir fry. I obsessed over discovering that breakthrough — for a while, I was certain it was the sauce, then the cooking method, then some ingredient that was unavailable at conventional grocery stores. Through garlic and ginger sauces, higher cooking heats, and bottles of black vinegar, I happened on a number of tasty dinners, but I still couldn’t produce the stir fry I wanted.

As it turned out, the key was simplifying things. When I made my first stir fry consisting solely of a single vegetable and tofu, it was great — it had a simple sauce, it was fried without any special technique or ingredients, and it went from prep to finished in about 15 minutes. The only problem? I had anticipated it taking longer, and my rice hadn’t finished cooking.

With my new focus on simplicity, I then set out to make a great recipe for crispy tofu — something that could become an easy weeknight staple. With that mission, this recipe was created.

Incidentally, this recipe was also created due to a kitchen mistake. While there are many ways to produce crispy tofu, one method calls for dusting tofu with cornstarch and stir frying. It’s a simple method, and I think it’s a good compromise between labor involved and end result. However, to maintain that crispy texture, you have to remove the tofu from your wok or pan before stir frying anything else — especially if you’re cooking something that throws off liquid.

As it happens, while trying to make my perfect batch of crispy tofu, I added a mixture of soy sauce, mirin, black pepper, scallion whites, and chili oil directly to my wok while the tofu was still frying.

tofu in black pepper sauce stir frying in wok

Predictably, the result was a gummy mess of sauce-soaked cornstarch globs clinging haphazardly to blocks of tofu. Attempts to salvage the dish by breaking up the cornstarch sheets connecting multiple blocks of tofu created a mess of broken tofu fragments.

Suffice to say, it’s not what I had wanted. Texturally and aesthetically, the dish was a mess I was ready to chalk up as a failure.

The taste, however, was great. The tofu was incredibly flavorful — in fact, it was far better than any crispy tofu dish I had ever made. The key was those globs of cornstarch, which made every bite of tofu incredible.

While this dish isn’t at all what I’d had in mind when I first came up with the recipe, we’re now making it about every two weeks. I wish I could fail this spectacularly more often.

tofu in black pepper sauce

Makes 4 small servings

While I honestly think the “failed” method produces better results, you could make a batch of crispy tofu and top it with the sauce. To make crispy tofu, you’ll need to use significantly more oil — enough to come up about an inch of your wok or pan — and you’ll need to fry in batches. Once the tofu is done, pour all excess oil out of your wok and cook the sauce over medium high until reduced. Drizzle sauce over tofu at the table.

  • One 14-ounce block extra firm tofu, drained and cut into 24 rectangles
  • Cornstarch, for dusting
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 scallions, chopped, whites and greens separated
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons mirin
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 – 3 teaspoons chili oil or sriracha, to taste (optional)
  • Steamed white rice, for serving

In a small bowl, combine soy sauce, scallion whites, mirin, black pepper, and chili oil. Whisk together and set aside.

Pour cornstarch onto a large dinner plate. Dust tofu rectangles in cornstarch, shaking off excess cornstarch as you go.

Heat an empty wok or lightly oiled nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Once heated, add oil, then add dusted tofu and salt. Stir fry tofu over medium-high heat until it begins to turn golden on all sides. Turn heat down to medium.

Whisk the soy sauce mixture and add it to the wok. Stir fry the tofu mixture an additional five minutes, or until the liquid has evaporated.

Serve tofu over the rice. Top each serving with scallion greens.