Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now
Food
A&E >  Food

Kung pao tofu is a spicy, tingly celebration of Sichuan cooking

In her cookbook “Spicebox Chicken,” Linda Shiue takes kung pao tofu back to its Sichuan roots.  (Laura Chase de Formigny/For the Washington Post)
In her cookbook “Spicebox Chicken,” Linda Shiue takes kung pao tofu back to its Sichuan roots. (Laura Chase de Formigny/For the Washington Post)
By Joe Yonan Washington Post

If you’ve ever wished your doctor knew more about cooking or your favorite chef knew more about nutrition, have I got a cookbook recommendation for you. It’s “Spicebox Kitchen” by Linda Shiue, the only person I’ve met who is both a practicing physician and a trained chef.

As the director of culinary medicine at a medical center in San Francisco, Shiue combined her two passions into one, all with the goal of helping patients lead healthier lives by learning how to cook delicious foods. The key is using your spice cabinet – especially the one you’re going to want to build after reading this book – to unlock the secrets of global cooking.

One of the many things I love about Shiue’s book: She demonstrates such deep respect for international traditions yet doesn’t shy away from applying her own touches. She has roots in several cultures – she grew up on Long Island with Taiwanese parents, studied in New England, lived in Singapore for a year in college, married a man from Trinidad, externed at a Moroccan restaurant and has done fieldwork in China’s Sichuan province.

And by including so many culinary influences in her book, she is, in essence, helping undo any of the whitewashing that would have you mistakenly believe that cooking for “wellness” was invented by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop. “I wanted to counteract the misconception that there’s only one diet – what I call the ‘kale and quinoa diet,’ even though I love both of those things,” she told me.

American wellness trends sometimes seem made for the same people who all “follow the same wellness trends,” she adds. “But not everybody eats those ingredients. … Besides, genetically, everybody is different, so maybe a certain way of eating is better for you than someone else’s way. These global traditions are there for a reason.”

Shiue, then, can write credibly about the Moroccan spices she uses in shakshuka on one page and the glories of Sichuan peppercorns on another. Speaking of those peppercorns, they feature prominently, as they should, in Shiue’s take on kung pao. Her book is largely (but not exclusively) plant-based, and, in this recipe, she subs in tofu for the standard chicken.

Perhaps more importantly, she takes the dish back to its Sichuan roots before it picked up extra ingredients in Chinese American takeout restaurants. As she writes, “I’ve kept all the spicy, tangy flavor of the original but lightened it up, which actually enhances the flavors.” If you’ve never cooked with Sichuan peppercorns before, here’s your excuse to pick some up (or order them online).

The ones you can get in the United States might not pack the same potency as those in China, but make this dish with them, and you’ll appreciate that beautiful Sichuan combination of the heat from chiles and the tingly, numbing sensation from the peppercorns (which are actually the husks of prickly ash seeds). The latter “is a feeling you don’t get from any other ingredient,” she says.

“Somebody at some point in Sichuan thought, ‘We love spicy food, but it’s too much, so what if we combine it with something anesthetizing?’ ” From the front matter in Shiue’s book, you can learn that the chiles in the dish have been shown in some studies to reduce cholesterol levels and help control blood pressure, and that the peppercorns contain anti-inflammatory compounds, among other benefits.

But Shiue is refreshingly holistic in her approach to healthy cooking, and she is allergic to the idea of “superfoods.” She and other smart nutritionists and doctors suggest “eating the rainbow” for good reason: It’s about variety. “You can’t put something in a vacuum and say, ‘If I just eat this, I’ll be healthy,’ ” she says. What if all you’re after is a good recipe for dinner?

You have Shiue’s permission to page through the book and make and eat what appeals to you. That’s what I’ve been doing, and I’ve immediately understood the wisdom of her goal: to make cooking and eating healthy food a joy. The kung pao tofu is made in a flash, and the first time I tasted the results, my lips tingling and my forehead beading up with a little sweat, I broke into a wide grin, and I may have actually done a little dance. After all, doesn’t happy equal healthy?

Kung Pao Tofu

Adapted from “Spicebox Kitchen” by Linda Shiue (Hachette Books, 2021).

One (14-ounce) package firm tofu

2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce or tamari

1 tablespoon Chinkiang vinegar (Chinese black vinegar) or balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons hoisin sauce

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

2 tablespoons canola oil or other vegetable oil, divided

6 dried red chiles

1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns

3 scallions, white and light green parts separated from dark green, thinly sliced

1 red serrano chile, sliced (may substitute green serrano; remove seeds and ribs if you want less spice)

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

2 cloves garlic, sliced

½ cup unsalted roasted peanuts

Cooked rice, for serving

Wrap the tofu in a clean dish towel and microwave on high for 1 minute. Unwrap, rewrap with a fresh towel, and repeat. (This gets rid of excess liquid and is faster than pressing the tofu.) Unwrap, and slice the tofu into bite-size pieces.

In a small bowl, stir together the soy sauce, vinegar, hoisin and sesame oil.

In a large nonstick or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat, heat 1 tablespoon of canola oil until shimmering. Working in batches if necessary, add the sliced tofu in one layer and fry, undisturbed, until the bottom is golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Flip the pieces (you might need to scrape them up with a spatula if they’re sticking) and repeat until the other side is browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

Add the dried chiles and peppercorns to the pan and cook, tossing, just until fragrant, 10 to 20 seconds. (Be careful not to burn them!) Transfer the mixture to another plate.

Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of canola oil to the skillet and increase the heat to high. Add the white and light green parts of the scallions, chile, ginger and garlic and stir fry until fragrant, 10 seconds. Add the fried tofu and prepared sauce and stir fry until the sauce is fragrant and coats the tofu evenly, 10 seconds. Add the peppercorn mixture and the peanuts and stir fry until combined, 10 seconds.

Transfer to a serving dish, top with the dark green scallion slices and serve hot with rice.

Yield: 4 servings

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter

Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.