A surprising number of people feel duty-bound to like tofu in its primal form—white, mushy, and tastelessly pure. For those who don’t, here is tofu of another color, turned firm and chewy by a brief immersion in hot oil, then caramelized to a deep mahogany brown by a glaze of brown sugar and soy.
If you are using a soft variety of tofu, weight it as directed. If you are using a firm Chinese variety, no weighting is required.
Cut each square of tofu neatly across both diagonals, to yield 4 equal triangles per square, or 16 triangles in all. Stand the triangles on one of their cut ends on a tray lined with a triple thickness of paper towels, and leave them to drain for 15–30 minutes. You may leave them to drain overnight, if you wish, covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated.
Have the triangles, a tray lined with a double thickness of dry paper towels, a pair of long chopsticks, a large lid, and a large Chinese mesh spoon all within easy reach of your stovetop.
Heat a wok or deep, heavy skillet over high heat until hot. Add the oil, leaving several inches at the top of the pot to accommodate bubbling. Heat to the light-haze stage, 375° on a deep-fry thermometer, when a bit of tofu bobs to the surface within 2 seconds. Slide the triangles gently into the oil, one by one in quick succession, so long as the bubbling continues, adding as many triangles as can float comfortably on the surface at one time. (I fry all 16 at once in my 14-inch wok.) Expect them to bubble rather furiously on account of their high water content and shield yourself from spatters with the lid. The tofu will at first stick together. After about 30 seconds, when the bubbling dies down, gently separate the triangles with the chopsticks or wooden spoons. Fry them until golden, about 4 minutes, turning them occasionally, then remove to the paper towel to drain. If you are frying the triangles in batches, remember to allow several minutes for the oil to regain its initial high (375°) temperature, and retest the oil before frying the second batch. Expect the triangles to shrivel a bit as they cool.
When the oil cools, strain, bottle, and refrigerate it for future use.
Combine the black soy, thin soy, brown sugar, and five-spice powder, if used, stirring until well blended. Taste and adjust for desired sweetness. Have the sugar mixture, tofu, oil, and water for caramelizing all within reach of your stovetop.
Heat a wok or large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to sizzle a bead of water on contact. If your wok or pan is small and deep rather than broad and shallow caramelize the tofu in two batches and use only ½ the caramelizing ingredients for each batch.
Add the oil, swirl to coat the pan, then reduce the heat to medium. When the oil is hot enough to cause a drop of the sugar mixture to bubble, in several seconds, scrape the sugar mixture into the pan. Let it come to a simmer, then stir rapidly until it thickens in a full boil. Add the triangles, then toss briskly for about 2 minutes to glaze them evenly with the syrup. Do not allow the syrup to bum. Add the water to the bowl that held the sugar mixture, swish to reclaim the sugar clinging to it, then add the mixture to the pan. Raise the heat slightly to restore the bubbling, then continue to toss for 1–3 minutes, until there is only ⅛ inch syrup remaining in the bottom of the pan. Turn off the heat and let the triangles cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, tossing them every several minutes to distribute the syrup evenly. Scrape onto a plate to cool. If repeating with a second batch, wash the pan with hot water and dry before continuing.
For crisper triangles, let them cool completely on the plate, spread apart and uncovered. For a softer texture that will gradually absorb the syrup, put the triangles in a large, clean glass jar while they are still a bit warm, seal the jar, and rotate it occasionally to distribute the syrup.
The caramelized triangles may be refrigerated 1–2 days before serving. If you have cooled them on the plate, seal the plate airtight with plastic wrap.
Serve at room temperature, heaped in a shallow bowl or arranged in a pretty pinwheel on a flat serving plate.
Leftovers keep 4—5 days, refrigerated and tightly sealed.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.