General Tso's Tofu Perfected! Just in time for the Love2Chow 5th Anniversary

By Charleen - July 04, 2024

One of the most popular Chinese-American dishes, General Tso's chicken with its spicy, sweet-tart umami-laden bites is in many ways emblematic of the American experience. Five years ago I started an empty-nester blog, so my adult kids could easily find beloved recipes when inspired into the future, working in chow-friendly hikes and travel tips along the way. After I had crossed the globe perfecting my son's favorite dish, my daughter initiated an annual Veguary challenge. While General Tso's tofu seemed a natural variation, it took a few years to develop a technique to create perfectly textured bites that maximize flavor and satisfaction. A multicultural fusion come back around, just in time for America's birthday. Happy 4th of July!

Love2Chow General Tso's Tofu

The initial version of General Tso's chicken左宗棠雞 (Zuǒ zōng táng jī) in Chinese was invented in Taiwan by a 20th century refugee chef, who had fled the totalitarian government born out of his province before the "bamboo curtain" fell. The bold, spicy and sour flavors characteristic of Hunan food was fused to an American love for boneless, sugar-glazed fried chicken nuggets by Chinese-American immigrant chefs in New York City, and General Tso's chicken was born. 
Love2Chow General Tso's Chicken
Adapting new ingredients and local tastes, while preserving elements of remembered traditions form an important part of the American immigration story. 

From Meso-American tamales that might have substituted corn husks for bamboo leaves after the first humans crossed the land bridge, to the infinite variation of flatbreads and dumplings enveloping regional fillings, some similarities might be due to convergent evolution of independently developed food ideas, but more often than not reflect peaceful cultural exchanges over the millenia. No one can deny the impact of American plants -- chocolate, vanilla, chilies, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, beans, squash -- on global cuisines. While food origins become murky as introduced foods and ideas become part of national and cultural identities, we are all enriched by these culinary linkages. 

This is the quintessential American experience: the opportunity and freedom to not just tolerate, but actively share cultural traditions and create something better in the tapestry of life. 

Happy Fourth of July!

Click here for Love2Chow General Tso's Chicken recipe.
Click here for Love2Chow General Tso's cauliflower recipe.

Flavors and Textures

While it was straightforward to create the desired tangy-sweet sauce with a bit of heat, for each phase of my General Tso's exploration, the difficult part was getting the texture just right. This was true for General Tso's Chicken, General Tso's Cauliflower, and General Tso's Tofu.

Fuchsia Dunlop's recipe in Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook offered the perfectly textured chicken, but I found that both versions of her sauce lacked brightness. After my daughter's first Veguary challenge (which we failed pretty quickly by forgetting that oyster sauce was not vegetarian -- we got better the second year), I thought it would be straightforward to substitute fried cauliflower or tofu for the fried chicken chunks. But this was not the case.

Inspired by Gobi (cauliflower) Manchurian, a beloved Indo-Chinese fusion dish, I was able to develop a highly satisfying vegan General Tso's cauliflower with a texture and flavor that rivaled the original.
Love2Chow General Tso's Cauliflower

But the tofu version eluded me. 

As an American-born Chinese, I never cared for the texture or flavor of tofu growing up. While my parents enjoyed soft, jiggly, pale tofu or soft, jiggly steamed egg custard topped with tiny dried fish, I did not. As an adult, I have grown to love ginger and enjoy green peppers, but I still do not see the charms of bitter melon. My husband, with his midwestern background, disliked tofu even more than I, despite descending from a soybean and corn farmer.

The only forms of curdled soybean I liked as a kid were the "tofu skins" 豆腐皮 (also known as yuba) and firm well-seasoned "dry tofu" 豆腐乾. After joining the Facebook group, Wok Wednesdays, cooking through the wok-guru and Chinatown activist Grace Young's remarkable cookbooks, I reconnected with my Chinese culinary roots and learned I could make dishes that surpassed those enjoyed in many restaurants. As chronicled in a prior post, this helped me achieve a new appreciation for softer forms of tofu.

I learned from a cookbook that I had won from Wok Wednesdays, Cameron Stauch's Vegetarian Viet Nam, that one reason I had not enjoyed eating/cooking tofu is that most forms of tofu need to be pressed to remove excess water and then fried or panfried before being used in a dish.  

Click here for great entry level tofu dishes for the tofu-hesitant.
Search "Wok with Me" for Wok Wednesday dishes of the month:
    Mu Shu Pork with homemade Mandarin pancakes (restaurants never give you enough pancakes)
    Perfect Spring Rolls for Chinese New Year: deep-fried, air-fried or not fried
    Saucy braised tofu with mushrooms, scallion or black sesame pancakes
    Rediscovering Tofu: It's all about texture  (including a fantastic Vietnamese tofu in fresh tomato sauce, mapo tofu, and silken tofu spinach soup)   

The General Tso's texture breakthrough

My early attempts to make General Tso's tofu was to pan-fry tofu chunks as I did in other dishes that we enjoyed, and then toss them in the same bubbling sauce I had developed to glaze them. This resulted in attractive chunks in a reasonably flavorful dish, but the sauce and tofu did not integrate into the perfect glazed bite that I sought.

This problem persisted when I tried a few other recipes for General Tso's tofu, even after I had discovered the absolute best brand of extra firm tofu. While most firm and extra-firm tofus required a fussy step of pressing out the excess water, Nature's Soy brand of extra-firm tofu does the work for you. 

While the package is just 10 oz instead of 16 oz, it yields the same amount of tofu that you would get from a heavier, wetter brand. It's like they did the pressing for you in advance. And I found I could use this tofu in recipes straight out of the package, wicking off the surface water with a brief wrapping in a clean dish towel. 

A few years elapsed, and I gave up on the idea, enjoying the chicken and cauliflower versions instead. But one day, I decided to give Maggie Zhu's recipe a try

Wow! Her procedure, which I modified to be a bit more environmentally friendly by using reusable tupperware instead of plastic bags, resulted in meaty chunks of tofu fully glazed with sauce. Instead of just coating tofu with seasonings and cornstarch, which I had tried before she has a two step process that results in a slightly thicker, but more sticky, coating. (Click for Instagram video). 

Her recipe also includes broccoli, which is often added to General Tso's chicken. We very much enjoyed this dish, and I resolved to try her marinating technique with my own General Tso's sauce.
Omnivore's Cookbook version of General Tso's Tofu - great texture!

Mala Chilies for even Brighter Flavors

While I have long been a fan of Penzey's spices, relying on their Tien Tsin Chili Peppers for a variety of dishes, a further refinement to my General Tso's sauce involved mixing different Chinese dried chilies purchased from the Mala Market

Contrary to popular belief, most Szechuan dishes that are carpeted with a scary looking amount of hot chilis are not really that hot/spicy. The Tien Tsin chili and similar peppers are mild to moderate, albeit with great flavors. 

The Mala Market offers a chili pepper sampler with four different types of very freshly picked and dried chilis.  And boy does that make a different in both texture and flavor. I used 2/3 of the milder Chao Tian Jiao/facing heaven or bullet head chilies and 1/3 of the hot little Xiao Mi La chilies, combined with the other sauce ingredients for a spectacular flavor with high notes from occasional bursts of heart.

I look forward to mixing and matching the other two Chinese dried chilies in this sampler to see how that affects the flavor. Interestingly, although these chilies have a fresh harvest date, none of the seeds sprouted under the care of my excellent gardener friend Alice. In contrast, Penzey's Tien Tsin chili seeds all sprouted for a fantastic yield.  I look forward to tasting fresh Tien Tsin chilies!
Tien Tsin chili plant grown from dried Penzey's pepper seed

Refining the General Tso's Tofu Technique

Incorporating this tofu coating technique into my repertoire allowed me to perfect my General Tso's tofu, making the recipe ready to share with my kids.
Ingredients for General Tso's tofu, including ginger that I grew.

The first step is to prepare, marinate, and fry the tofu cubes. After cutting the tofu and drying the surface by wrapping in a dish towel as illustrated above, the cubes and two simple marinade ingredients are added to a reusable leftover container. 
A reusable container works just as well as a plastic bag in coating the tofu in marinade

In the meantime, the aromatics are prepped. I often save the roots cut from the scallions and plant them, for a whole season's worth of increasing large scallion leaves. Plus the flowers add a fantastic piquant flavor and edible color to dishes, as seen in my riff on Gordon Ramsay's cauliflower steak
Prepping aromatics, and ensuring a continuous supply of fresh scallion leaves

After mixing the sauce ingredients, the tofu cubes are drained, and then cornstarch is added to just coat the majority of the surfaces.

The tofu cubes are then either pan fried or fried in 1/2 cup of oil in a wok.  The shape of the wok allows for easy frying using much less oil.
Pan-frying can be done in either a skillet or a wok

Or the wok allows for deep-frying in just 1/2 cup of oil

If deep frying, use chop sticks to add each piece of tofu individually, swirling it through the oil to prevent it from sticking to another piece. This is a technique I learned from making shrimp tempura

Marinating the tofu, followed by coating in corn starch and then shallow-frying results in a crisp, slight shaggy coating that is perfect for capturing the sauce. And yields a tender tofu inside that resembles chicken in appearance and mouthfeel!
Perfectly coated tofu, ready for glazing with sauce

The tofu cubes are drained on a wire rack, and then set aside until it is time to finish the dish. This can be done several hours in advance. 

A Quick & Easy Finish to Impress

As this dish is best served hot from the pan, wait for your guests to arrive, and then finish the dish once everyone is seated at the table enjoying some appetizers. 

For this meal, I used the same wok to fry the tofu, prepare the spinach side dish, and to glaze the General Tso's tofu. Just be sure to remove the excess oil and wipe out the small bits of cornstarch so they cannot burn.
Stirfry garlic in hot oil for a few seconds to release the aromas, and then add spinach stems to the bottom followed by leaves on top. Stirfry to start the wilting process. Then add a dash of rice wine, and continue to stirfry as the liquid evaporates and the spinach is bright green and soft.

After cooking the vegetable, dry the wok.  Then heat until a newly flicked drop of water evaporates in about 1 sec. This means the pan is hot enough to take the cold oil and form a barrier to prevent sticking. 

Add the aromatics and stir-fry, releasing their fragrance.

When aromatics show the slightest browning, quickly add the sauce to prevent them from burning.

It will start to bubble and thicken quickly.

Add the fried tofu back to the pan and toss quickly to glaze.

I reduced the sugar and soy sauce in my General Tso's sauce to compensate for the inclusion of soy sauce and syrup in the tofu marinade. Nevertheless, with the extra high heat achieved by my Wolf wok burner, I noticed the sugar in the sauce was spinning out into strands of caramel as I tossed in the pan-fried tofu cubes 
Strands of caramelized sugar stretching between tofu cubes

(See posts on our kitchen renovations to achieve the perfect power and geometry for wok cooking in an American kitchen). 

This resulted in a General Tso's tofu dish that had my husband raving about how good it was. And I had finally transformed tofu into perfect glazed bites that are truly addictive. 
Love2Chow General Tso's Tofu served over plain basmati-green lentil rice with stir-fried spinach in garlic-rice wine sauce.

As I write this, I find myself going back to the refrigerator to pop a few more leftover pieces into my mouth -- and they are delicious cold, too! 

Love2Chow General Tso's Tofu

Tofu nuggets
10 oz     package of Nature's Soy extra-firm tofu, or 14-16 oz package of another brand
1            Tbs soy sauce (plus more for sauce below)
1            Tbs maple syrup or shagbark hickory syrup
3-6         Tbs cornstarch (plus more for sauce below)
Neutral flavored oil for pan-frying

6-10     dried red Chinese chili peppers (available at Mala Market or Penzey's)
3/4       inch knob of fresh ginger
2-3       cloves garlic
2          stalks of scallions

         Tbs sugar
         Tbs red wine vinegar
         Tbs Shaoshing rice wine or dry sherry
1 1/2    Tbs soy sauce
2          tsp cornstarch

Optional: 1-2 stalks of broccoli, florets cut into bite size pieces. Peel stalks and remove dried, tough portion at the base. Cut into pieces on a bias, rotating 1/4 turn between each cut. Or serve with any vegetable, which can be cooked in the same wok, but not combined into the dish.

1. Cut tofu block into 3/4-1 inch cubes. If using Nature's Soy, wrap cubes briefly in a clean dishcloth to wick off surface water. If using another brand, place cubes between two layers of dishclothes, sandwiched between two cutting boards. Weight the top board with 2-3 cans of tomatoes (28-oz) for 20 min. 

2. In a tupperware or take-out container with well-fitting lid, add the tofu, 1 Tbs soy sauce and 1 Tbs syrup. Close container and gently rotate to coat tofu with the liquid. Marinate while preparing the remaining ingredients, 10-15 min.

3. Cut chili's into 203 segments. Keep seeds and just use fewer chilis (or a milder variety) if you don't want it too hot. Scrape off ginger skin with a teaspoon, cut off any dried tough parts, and mince. You should have about 2 tsp. Peel and mince garlic and add to ginger. Wash and slice scallions and set aside separately. 

4. Mix sauce ingredients -- sugar, vinegars, rice wine, soy sauce, 2 tsp cornstarch -- in a small bowl.

5. Open tofu container and decant the excess fluid into the sauce bowl. Add 1-2 Tbs cornstarch to the tofu, closing lid and gently shaking to distribute in between additions, until tofu is lightly coated.

6. Pan-fry tofu and drain on a rack set over a half-sheet pan.
    a. If using a wok: heat 1/2 cup of oil at medium-high heat. Add 1/3 of the tofu, swirling into oil one at a time to keep them from gluing together. Pan-fry, flipping occasionally for 2-4 min until golden brown.
    b. If using skillet: heat 2 Tbs oil in a skillet at medium heat. Lay 1/3 to 1/2 of the tofu on the pan, leaving room in between. Fry undisturbed for 3-4 min/side until golden brown. 

Drain tofu cubes on a rack, and repeat with remaining tofu.

7. Remove excess oil from pan, retaining for future use, wiping out small crumbs from frying the tofu as necessary. Add back ~ 1 Tbs of the oil, and heat on medium heat. Toss broccoli, if using, into pan for 30-60 s. Add 2-4 Tbs of water and immediately cover with lid. Allow to steam for 2-3 min, or until a piece removed for tasting is as soft as you like it.   OR stirfry/cook another other vegetable you wish to serve with the dish, such as spinach or green beans.

Set aside, discarding excess liquid from the wok/pan.

8. Re-heat the pan on medium heat until a drop of water evaporates in ~1 sec. Add 1 Tbs oil. Add chilis, garlic and ginger and stirfry ~10 sec.

9. Increase heat to medium-high. Stir the sauce and pour around the edges of the wok. It should start bubbling and thickening rapidly. Return tofu (and broccoli if desired) to wok and toss to coat until everything is hot. Take off heat and stir in green onions. 

🐾 Note: the tofu can be marinated and shallow-fried a few hours in advance, and the spices, sauce and vegetables prepped in advance. Start with step 7 or 8 as appropriate to finish dish and serve hot with rice. 

🍃 Dish towels work much better than paper towels at removing water. They are more sustainable and absorb a lot more volume. Using reusable containers for marinating also reduces plastic bag landfill waste.

🍃 Save the very ends of the scallions including the roots. You can either stick toothpicks in and grow them in water, or plant them directly in the garden.


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