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Vegan take on India’s chicken 65 delivers crispy fried tofu, minus splatters

Tofu 65 is the vegan version of the Indian dish chicken 65.  (Scott Suchman/For the Washington Post)
Tofu 65 is the vegan version of the Indian dish chicken 65. (Scott Suchman/For the Washington Post)
By Joe Yonan Washington Post

I’ll never stop learning about tofu. I’ve been cooking it for decades, but new techniques for bringing out its best qualities regularly cross my path, and it’s nothing short of delightful when the technique delivers on its promise. And as I’ve been slowly getting my cooking energy back after a recent setback, delight and surprise have been more welcome in my kitchen than ever.

The source of the latest breakthrough technique is Priyanka Naik’s new book, “The Modern Tiffin.” In it, Naik writes about dishes inspired by her global travels – but often anchored in her own South Asian heritage – that are fit to pack into a tiffin, an Indian lunch box. And it was in her recipe for tofu 65, a vegan version of chicken 65, that I learned about a way to fry tofu that gets coated in a crisp shell without creating a mess of powdery starch or splattering oil.

Now, I’ve never been that afraid of frying, but it’s never exactly hassle-free. This method, though, hardly seems like frying at all. Rather than tossing the tofu in a lot of cornstarch or potato starch and then letting it sizzle and sputter in a half-inch or more of oil, you first whisk together only a couple of tablespoons of starch with an equal amount of oil. That creates a smooth, sticky batter that coats exactly a pound of tofu cubes – and stays put when you pan fry those cubes in a mere teaspoon of oil in a nonstick skillet, getting them golden brown on each of their six sides.

From there, as with other similar tofu dishes, it’s just a matter of creating a quick sauce – in this case, a spicy one with red onions, chiles and ginger – and tossing it together before serving. The tofu turns out so crunchy, and the sauce that glazes it so flavorful, you’ll probably be thinking what I was thinking: Where has this dish been all my life, and when am I making it again?

In case you’re wondering about that name, as I was, it turns out there are lots of theories about why the 65. Naik writes that her father told her it’s because the chicken was traditionally 65 days old at slaughter, and other theories have posited that it was because there were 65 spices, or the chicken was traditionally cut into 65 pieces. But other sources say the name comes from the Hotel Buhari in Chennai inventing it in 1965. That explanation makes the most sense to me because I have my own connection to 1965: It was the year I was born.

Tofu 65

1 (14- to 16-ounce) package extra-firm tofu

2 tablespoons cornstarch

3 tablespoons vegetable oil or another neutral oil, divided

½ teaspoon black mustard seeds

2 whole dried Sichuan or Kashmiri red chiles

1 small red onion (6 ounces), cut into 1-inch cubes

One 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped (1 tablespoon)

2 garlic cloves, chopped

½ teaspoon Kashmiri red chile powder (may substitute New Mexican or any other spicy red chile powder)

¼ teaspoon ground turmeric

1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce

¼ cup water

¼ teaspoon granulated sugar

Fine sea salt

¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro stems and leaves

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 1-inch cubes.

In a large bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and 2 tablespoons of oil until smooth. Add the tofu and toss until thoroughly coated.

In a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, heat 1 teaspoon of oil until shimmering. Add the tofu pieces carefully (they might splatter) and cook until golden brown and crispy on each side, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate.

Using the same skillet (leaving any tofu/cornstarch bits in it) still over medium-high heat, add the remaining 2 teaspoons of oil to coat the skillet. Add the mustard seeds and red chiles. Cook until the popping of the mustard seeds subsides, about 30 seconds.

Add the onion, ginger and garlic and cook, stirring, until the onion softens and starts to become translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the chile powder and turmeric, then stir in the soy sauce and water and cook just until incorporated, a few seconds.

Add the sugar and tofu and toss to coat thoroughly, then turn off the heat. Taste, and season with salt, if needed, then toss with the cilantro. Serve hot.

Note: Black mustard seeds, Kashmiri chile powder and Sichuan or Kashmiri chiles can be found in Indian or many international markets, well-stocked grocery stores and online.

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated as long as 3 days.

Yield: 2 to 4 servings

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