Tofu is simmered in a sweet-spicy garlic sauce to make Szechuan Tofu, a vegan variation on a traditional Chinese dish. Fresh water chestnuts add crunch, but if you can’t find them, canned will do.
My family had only one complaint about Szechuan Tofu with Garlic Sauce: there wasn’t enough of it.
I’d been looking for fresh water chestnuts ever since I saw the recipe for Chicken with Garlic Sauce on the food blog that has taught me the most about Chinese cooking, Barbara Fisher’s Tigers and Strawberries. According to Barbara, the recipe benefits from using fresh rather than canned water chestnuts, so I went off looking for them right after she posted the recipe.
Unfortunately, if the small Asian grocery store near me has them, I couldn’t find them, so I pushed the recipe to the back of my mind until last weekend when I happened to find fresh water chestnuts on my visit to the huge Hong Kong Market in Terrytown, Louisiana.
I’d never bought or cooked with fresh water chestnuts before, so I didn’t know what to expect. After peeling off the dark outer layer, I cut off a thin slice to taste and was amazed at how much sweeter it was than the canned ones, which have always seemed to me to be all crunch and no flavor.
If you can find them, it’s worth the time it takes to peel and slice them, but a word of caution: check them carefully to make sure they have no soft spots or indentations. A couple of the ones I bought in haste turned out to be unusable, and a few others had to be radically trimmed; it’s probably best to buy a few more than you need. If you can’t find them, Barbara suggests substituting fresh jicama root, though in such a flavorful sauce as this, I think the canned variety would be okay, though not optimum.
The real star of this Sichuan (or Szechuan) dish isn’t the water chestnuts; it’s the incredible sweet and spicy sauce. My vegan version is less spicy than the original (I’m feeding a spice-intolerant 10-year-old) but it’s still bursting with the flavors of garlic, green onion, and ginger.
Besides using tofu instead of chicken, I made very few changes other than reducing the amounts of black pepper and chili sauce and modifying the marinade to account for the fact that tofu absorbs marinade more readily than chicken. I did have to leave out the black cloud ear fungus because I just didn’t have it, but all in all, I think I remained true to the original recipe.
But the next time I make Szechuan tofu, I plan to double the sauce and add broccoli or another vegetable, just to make it stretch further. I served it with some steamed brown rice and stir-fried tiny bok choy, but we’re all big eaters so it fed the three of us with no leftovers. And this is one of those times when we’d have loved to have leftovers to enjoy the next day.
Sichuan (or Szechuan) Tofu with Garlic Sauce
- 1 pound firm or extra-firm tofu
- 1/4 cup warm vegetable broth
- 1 tablespoon Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
- 1 tablespoon reduced-sodium soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper up to one tablespoon
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons black rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce or gluten-free substitute
- 1 tablespoon Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
- 2 tablespoons agave nectar or sugar
- 1 - 2 teaspoons chili garlic paste or sambal oelek or chili garlic sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon sesame oil (optional, see note)
- 6 large cloves garlic minced (up to 1 head)
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
- 1 bunch green onions
- 8 fresh water chestnuts (use 1/2 cup of canned, slivered water chestnuts, if necessary)
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved into 2 tbsp. water
- Cut the tofu widthwise into 1/2-inch slices. Then cut each slice widthwise into 1/2-inch by 1 1/2-inch sticks. Put the pieces in a ziplock bag and add the vegetable broth, 1 tbsp. wine, 1 tbsp. soy sauce, and black pepper. Let it marinate, turning the bag every few minutes, while you prepare the vegetables and sauce.
- In a small bowl or measuring cup, mix together the vinegars, 2 tbsp. soy sauce, 1 tbsp. wine, agave nectar or sugar, chili garlic paste, and sesame oil. Set aside.
- Peel and slice the water chestnuts and cut each slice into shreds, about three pieces per slice. Slice the green onions thinly, separating the dark green tops from the light green and white parts.
- Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the light-colored scallion slices, the garlic, and the ginger, and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes. Remove from the skillet and set aside.
- Add the tofu and its marinade to the pan, making sure the tofu is in a single layer. When the marinade has evaporated, carefully turn the tofu (which should be light brown on the bottom) and cook the other side until brown. Add the green onion mixture back to the pan and cook, stirring for another minute.
- Add the water chestnuts and sauce and bring to a boil. Add cornstarch and water and simmer until thickened and glossy. Remove from heat and garnish with green onion tops.
Nutritional info is approximate.
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ReneeSeptember 27, 2009 at 9:57 pm
Just made this recipe tonight and loved it! We will be making it again. I have one question though, where does the black pepper go? I might have mis-read the recipe but I couldn't find where it went. I put it in the marinade. Definitely need to add a vegetable or supplement with a veggie to make a full meal. I will be checking out the Chipotle Tofu recipe next!
SusanVSeptember 27, 2009 at 10:11 pm
Renee, thanks for pointing that out. I've made the recipe several times and never noticed the error. The pepper should be added to the marinade, as you did.
AnonymousNovember 3, 2009 at 12:45 am
Fantastic recipe! I've made this three times in just a couple weeks..it's that good! My non vegan family members even think it's de-lish (darn it no leftovers). I have been using canned water chestnuts and also one Tbl balsamic and one white vinegar for the black.
Thank you so much for sharing all your wonderful recipes.
AJPJanuary 27, 2010 at 7:48 pm
This was delicious! I made it with mushrooms and red onion because that's all I had (plus I hate water chestnuts), and it was amazing. Thanks for a great dinner!
AmandaApril 8, 2010 at 6:47 pm
This was great! I didnt have water chestnuts, but added sweet onion, mushrooms and broccoli to it, and served over whole wheat pasta.. it was delicious!
LaurenAugust 21, 2010 at 2:46 am
This looks delicious, but I only have Tempeh on hand do you think that this would work equally well?
SusanVAugust 21, 2010 at 9:03 am
I think it would be different but good. Something tells me that you may need more marinade for tempeh, so consider doubling it.
Corinne from It's Vegetarian!October 9, 2010 at 10:10 am
This looks amazing!! I’m definitely making this next week…I may have to sub canned waterchestnuts and something instead of the black rice vinegar though. 🙂
“Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances of survival for life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” – Albert Einstein
KristenNovember 5, 2010 at 3:05 pm
This was just an incredible recipe — such rich, authentic flavors, it really took me back to my favorite Sichuan joints in NYC. I included the black cloud ear fungus from the original recipe, and added chestnut mushrooms in place of the water chestnuts (I never could stand their texture!). I followed the marinade and sauce recipe to a T, so I’m not sure why mine came out much darker in color, but it looked and tasted wonderful nonetheless!
Stokey SueApril 18, 2012 at 2:27 pm
Lovely recipe, and I will use the method as a basis for de-fatting other tofu recipes.
ButI have a question – what , exactly, is “chili garlic paste “? Not a known ingredient here in the UK
I have been using chili bean paste (as that is Sichuanese) – works well
I have also tried replacing the black pepper with Sichauan pepper – delicious!
Susan VoisinApril 18, 2012 at 2:34 pm
Chili garlic paste is simply a sauce made with crushed peppers and garlic that I get in Asian grocery stores. The chili bean paste sounds like a good substitution.
neil jonesSeptember 9, 2012 at 2:16 pm
What a fantastic recipe.
All family absolutely loved it.
wvbotanybabeOctober 21, 2012 at 11:39 pm
If you want to do something similar to this and can’t find the fresh water chestnuts again, try substituting jicama. You can find this root veggie at any Latin market, and even at grocery stores and Walmart these days. It is a large brown apple-looking root that stays sweet and crispy no matter how long you marinate or cook it. It takes on flavor beautifully and is delicious cooked or raw!
AlyssaDecember 31, 2012 at 6:21 pm
We usually order in Chinese food on New Years Eve, but I decided to make this along with sesame broccoli and brown rice instead. I’m so glad I did — none of that “Oh, I ate Chinese food!” feeling afterward. I wish I had known about this recipe the last time our co-op box had fresh water chestnuts! I’ll be making this again soon! Thank you again for a reliably delicious recipe!
Susan VoisinDecember 31, 2012 at 6:26 pm
I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Alyssa, because it’s one of my favorite recipes. Happy new year!
James LewisNovember 15, 2015 at 4:05 pm
I will be trying this very soon; it never occurred to me to eat Tofu, there was a really good documentary called Super-foods by Jamie Oliver and I have just bought his new cook book. Really excited about starting this new journey of healthy eating!
Barbara FisherDecember 1, 2017 at 1:13 pm
i thought everyone had forgotten about my blog! Thank you for your kind words and this version looks mighty tasty. Broccoli is lovely with this sauce, by the way. A combo of broccoli or gai lan, water chestnuts and pressed tofu would be heavenly.
I’m glad I helped you learn Chinese cooking–it is a skill that every cook should know.
hrbdoctrDecember 5, 2017 at 10:47 am
susan: that is maybe four times the amount of sodium per serving one should eat
KrisDecember 27, 2017 at 9:19 am
This sounds delish! Do you press your tofu so it absorbs the marinade?
Susan VoisinDecember 27, 2017 at 3:56 pm
No, I just use extra firm and drain it well. It absorbed marinade just fine.
Nel CameronMay 4, 2021 at 3:12 pm
Great flavours but I found it too sweet. I would omit most of the agave/sugar and add later if it needed it. I did double the sauce (except the sugar) and added broccoli, snow peas and Chinese spinach. It was delicious.