The Festival Season: Black Pepper Tofu
May 5, 2016
Life is slowly returning to normal post-supper club. The food-related nightmares have subsided, I can go grocery shopping without feeling panicked, and with the exception of the week I spent holed up in front of my laptop scavenging for stray commas and measuring margin sizes in the draft for the new issue of SAND that went to print on Monday, my to-do lists are feeling less pressing. Somehow, without my really having noticed it (I must have been buried in clauses), the tree in the courtyard exploded into bold green bedecked with conical rockets of white flowers.
May 1 came and went, and amidst the grumbles that no one is really protesting anything anymore these days, I gathered in Görlitzer Park with thousands of other Berliners soaking up the fresh spring sun like cats – protesting, for good or ill, nothing more than the warm beer being sold on street corners.
We’re entering the season of no work and all play. In just two weeks, there’ll be the Carnival of Cultures, a wild rumpus of color and sound, where the city celebrates the food, clothing, crafts, dance, and music of all its represented cultures. The streets are littered with crushed limes and plastic cups from Berlin’s favorite summer drink: the caipirinha – “caipi” for short – a mix of cachaça, cane sugar, and lime. Street vendors sell smoky jerk chicken and jollof rice. There’s kimchi and bratwurst, pierogis, falafel, empanadas, tacos, bulgogi… All the foods from all the places. The USA does soft-serve.
Festivals aside, the parks will be packed with sunbathers and kids flying kites. In Tempelhof, the cracking runways will be striped with rollerbladers and skateboarders zipping from end to end. Every table outside of every café will be crammed with people sipping coffees and reading the paper, their little dogs lolling beneath their chairs. They will flock to the lakes, scraping sand from their sandwiches and rinsing their picnic lunches down with chilled lemonade.
And I will be among them, a lazy summer sitter, soaking up sunshine and enjoying the kiss of a cool breeze on my skin. I will sleep on my picnic blanket in the park, read in cafés, meet with friends on warm evenings. I will enjoy all of my vacations: In just a few hours, I’m heading to Dublin. I’ll be in Norway for Midsummer and sailing around Greece in the heat of July. These are the treats time affords.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s spring still. Not yet warm enough to leave my jacket home or walk around in sandaled feet. I’m still recovering – still blooming, you might say.
These months, while I’m waiting to let loose for summer, I find myself in the kitchen, trying out new recipes. I’ve fallen in love with Yotam Ottolenghi’s black pepper tofu, which requires not one but three types of soy sauce. After making that kind of investment, of course I’ve made it again and again. Also because it is delicious.
I’ve never been a big fan of tofu. It’s fine, but boring, only shining when the sauce it’s cooked in is especially good – and even then, it’s the sauce I like, not the tofu. But in this dish, tofu is mild enough to carry the weighty punch of black pepper and humble enough to let it be the star. And because the tofu is deep fried before being added to the sauce, it looses a lot of its aggressive creaminess.
I’ve made this dish three times in as many weeks, and even now, I’m craving a hit of that sweet and savory sauce whose heat gently lingers in your mouth long after you’ve had the last bite. But today’s weather forecast is hot, hot, hot, and I don’t feel like going near the stove. The sky outside is blue without a trace of cloud, the sun beaming so brilliantly on my desk it’s getting hard to see without squinting. Maybe it’s time to close up shop for the day. It’s a holiday anyway, like most of May here is a holiday. I’ll go outside and get a burger for lunch, stroll around the neighborhood – maybe have an afternoon coffee outside – and get some practice in for summer.
Black Pepper Tofu
Three types of soy sauce might sound excessive, but that’s what gives this dish its layered depth. Kecap manis is a sweet, condensed soy sauce with molasses notes, light soy sauce is what packs the salty, top-note punch, while dark soy sauce is subtler and more honey-like. You can find all three types at Asian grocery stores. This recipe is adapted from Saveur.com, and originally from Yotam Ottolenghi’s book Plenty. Serves 2-3.
¾ lbs. (300 g) firm tofu
½ cup cornstarch
2 cups vegetable oil
2 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ tbsp. kecap manis
1 ½ tbsp. light soy sauce
2 tsp. dark soy sauce
1 tbsp. sugar
5 tbsp. (70 g) butter
1 ½ tbsp. ginger, chopped
6 small shallots, sliced
6 cloves of garlic, chopped
4 bird’s eye chili, chopped
8 small scallions, green part only, cut into 1-inch (2 ½-cm) pieces
Basmati rice, to serve
Slice tofu into 1-inch (2 ½-cm) cubes. Pour cornstarch into a shallow bowl.
Heat vegetable oil in a heavy skillet until hot (a drop of water flicked into the skillet sizzles and pops). Working in batches, coat cubes of tofu in cornstarch and drop into the oil. I find this works best when you coat the tofu with cornstarch immediately before dropping into the oil – otherwise the damp tofu soaks up the cornstarch and turns it into a pasty mess. Fry each batch for about 5 minutes until the cubes of tofu are golden, then remove with a slotted spoon and place on a plate covered with a paper towel to drain.
Make sauce by mixing ground black pepper with kecap manis, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, and sugar. Set aside.
Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat, then add ginger, shallots, garlic, and chili. Sauté for about 15 minutes until soft and golden. If it starts to brown, turn the heat down (that’s kind of catchy – I should put it on a shirt…).
Add soy sauce mixture to skillet, and cook for about 1 minute. Add tofu, and stir to coat, cooking for 3-4 minutes until tofu is heated through. Toss with scallions. Serve over warm basmati rice.