This isn’t your typical kung pao found at an ordinary Chinese restaurant in America (did the tofu clue you in?), and it’s not quite an authentic version found at a Chinese Szechuan restaurant in China. This is not the battered and fried, heavily sauced kung pao you might know (and love), but that’s a good thing, as in tasty, quick and easy, and good for you things. Battered and fried chicken in all its many wonderful iterations certainly has a place at our table and we’ve had many a take-out kung pao over the years, but the whole batter and fry part can be a pain and mess. Who needs that after a long day of work? So this follows the route of the original kung pao chicken that has non-battered chicken, dried red peppers, Szechuan peppercorns, green peppers, lots of peanuts, and no gloopy sauce. Well, except tofu instead of chicken, sriracha instead of the fiery peppers, colored peppers to dress up the tofu, no Szechuan peppercorns, and no fried tofu. See, close to the original.
I like having tofu on hand because it’s a quick grab-and-go protein that requires little prep and it lasts a long time in the fridge. It’s a great protein choice for our toothless 10-month old and our toddler just ate four helpings for lunch (what planets have aligned for that to occur?) With them in mind this is toned down on the fieriness scale (Szechuan cuisine can be spicy!), but feel free to tone it up as you see fit. I don’t recall Szechuan peppercorns making an appearance in kung pao in China, and you’ll know when you taste one because your mouth will go numb, but who am I to deny you the pleasure (or pain) of some mouth-numbing spice. Add away as you see fit, my friend. I insist, however, that you use black vinegar-other vinegars cannot capture its uniqueness. The Zhenjiang (Chinkiang) black vinegar is regarded as the best (I could drink the stuff). In China, it’s used as a dipping sauce for dumplings (mixed with some pickled pepper and sesame oil-yum!).
Frying gives tofu much-needed texture. Really most anything, especially something that’s sort of a tasteless blob, benefits from a dunk in hot oil. Frying tofu really isn’t that difficult. It just adds time and mess. I’ve made this dish with fried tofu (and it’s delicious), but I’ve also made it without frying the tofu and it’s equally delicious -peanuts give the dish lots of crunch and texture so you don’t really miss that the tofu lacks crunch, but you be the judge. If you have the time and patience or you’re on the fence about tofu, then, by all means, fry your tofu before cooking it with the sauce. Fried tofu single-handedly makes the case for the power of frying to transform something. But if I don’t have to clean up oil-soaked paper towels and oil-splattered surfaces (hmm, maybe I just need a proper fryer?) and the dish still tastes awesome, then it’s no fried all day. And it’s healthier. Sold.
You might be less inclined to get the American take-out version once you try this somewhat- authentic- but- really- not version. All I know is that it tastes really good, my kids eat it, I can make it in the time it takes to cook rice- from start to finish twice if it’s brown rice (I’m just saying), and it makes a great lunch the next day, because you’ll certainly want the leftovers the next day. Yeah, it’s that good.