Nugget of Wisdom

I’ve never met a plant-based nugget I didn’t like. While the war over fast food nuggets wages on, I’m perfectly content to stay home and indulge my love for these savory snacks quietly, without controversy. No matter the “meat” of the matter, homemade will always win this fight. From nutrition to flavor, there’s just no comparison.

That said, I do have a clear favorite among the multitudes of contenders. Protein-packed organic tofu might seem like an old fashioned choice, but that’s certainly not the case when Hodo is in the kitchen. Slow-cooked in bold spice blends to infuse incredible flavor before frying them up for a chewy texture, both the Chinese 5 Spice and Thai Curry Nuggets are ready to eat right out of the package. Of course, there are even greater rewards in store with a little extra prep work.

These crispy, crunchy, compulsively munchable morsels will convince anyone that Hodo is the only way to go. Simple pantry staples transform into restaurant-quality breading for an amber brown, boldly seasoned crust. Thick and satisfying yet surprisingly light, that exterior coating reveals an impossibly moist and juicy golden nugget within.

Just what makes them so meaty? They’re close relatives to tofu puffs, which have been fried as a way to push excess water out, creating an incredibly chewy, dense structure within. This also makes them incredibly absorbent, which is why the flavors of curry or 5-spice make such a bold impact in any dish, even after they’ve been simmered or stewed with other ingredients, or in this case, encased in a shatteringly crisp shell of seasoned breadcrumbs.

Plus, they’re shockingly low fat. Just a light spritz of olive oil will set the finish like a sheer lacquer will seal in the fine details on a masterful work of art. Piping hot and fresh out of the air fryer, it’s hard to believe but these beauties are baked for a grease-free finish. Aside from just eating them straight up as perfectly poppable finger food, the options for adornment are endless. Consider the following:

  • Dipping options: maple mustard, ketchup, teriyaki sauce, marinara, ranch dressing, buffalo sauce, sour cream and onion dip
  • Serving options: sandwiches, tacos, pizza, wraps/burritos, waffle toppers, salad mix-ins
  • Plated entree accompaniments: rice pilaf, steamed vegetables, roasted potatoes, buttered noodles, sauteed greens

That’s just the start! Make them your own with your favorite flavors. There’s truly nothing that doesn’t pair well with a such universally satisfying taste sensation.

Picky kids, tofu-haters, staunch omnivores, and health food vegans alike will be won over with one bite. Who needs takeout when you can much do better at home?

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Braised and Confused

It used to be a running joke that my seal of approval was more like the kiss of death to any burgeoning product or brand. I’d fall madly in love, declare it to the world, and that would be the end of it. Overnight, packages would quietly disappear from shelves, replaced by something different entirely. The object of my affection would vanish into thin air, ghosting me like all the misguided suitors on Hinge.

Thus, another beloved product bites the dust. Hodo, my favorite tofu maker the world over, recently scaled back production of this rare treat, selling in only limited markets. While certain parts of the country remain unaffected, immersed in a wealth of soy-based delights as always, I find myself without access to some of my cherished favorites.

Photo by colin price

Braised tofu, tender yet toothsome, was affected by that merciless culling. Nutty, complex, and creamy firm tofu infused with a savory and sweet Chinese five-spice blend, its subtle nuances set it apart from the pack. Plenty of renditions exist in Chinatown, as a classic staple of the cuisine, but none care so much about quality ingredients as Hodo.

Heartbroken, the only consolation is the ease of DIY replication. Though instant gratification is now off the table, they’ve generously shared the secret formula to recreate this braised beauty at home.

Once seasoned, it’s ready to eat as is, adding heft and flavor in spades to any stir fry, salad, or platter of crudités, even. Flavorful and satisfying all by itself, there are far worse snacks than a few thinly shaved slices draped delicately over crisp cucumbers or slices of toasted baguette.

Braised tofu is dead; long live braised tofu! It’s up to us home cooks to carry the torch now.

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Lettuce Feast

Don’t lose your cool as temperatures rise. There’s no need to sweat the details in the kitchen or the dining room when you could whip up an easy, breezy, no-cook meal in minutes.

Equal parts spicy and refreshing, each crisp bite will wake up your senses with an invigoratingly spicy, creamy almond sauce. Staying perfectly chilled with a refreshingly juicy, sweet and savory mango-tofu salad, the combination of tastes and textures can’t be beat.

Swaddled in fresh lettuce leaves, you don’t even need to break out the forks or knives. It’s a party starter, last minute meal, and relief from the heat all in one.

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General Admission

I hope this isn’t like debunking the myth of Santa Claus for ruining Christmas for some sad child, but I have bad news to break, and it’s about General Tso. Oh, no, he was a real person! It’s completely true that General Tso, otherwise known as Tso Tsung-t’ang, was a 19th-century general of the late Qing dynasty. Living on through epic tales of his prowess, crushing revolts, capturing rebels, and cultivating one of the most fearsome army forces in the world, his heroic might knew no equal. Lesser known are his efforts towards civil peace and stability through educated, prosperous citizens.

A complicated, stone-faced man, much remains unknown about the storied general, but one thing is for sure: General Tso had nothing to do with any sort of dish involving deep-fried chicken tossed in a tart-tangy-spicy-sweet brown sauce with broccoli. The eponymous leader never tasted the dish that keeps his name as part of the modern lexicon across the globe. For all we know, he didn’t even like broccoli – Because who’s really going to tell a war lord to eat his vegetables.

Sorry. The truth hurts.

Born in the good old US of A, General Tso’s chicken first appeared in the 1970, given the breath of the wok by a Taiwanese chef specializing in Hunan cuisine, no less. He was just a fan, a real history buff, I suppose, and also an excellent recipe developer. Riffs on this original formula proliferated faster than rabbits, coast to coast, introducing many American’s to their first taste of “Chinese” food.

So, my real point is this: Does knowing that an overweight bearded man won’t come slithering down the chimney at night to force coal into your stockings actually take the joy out of Christmas? Does learning that your favorite takeout might not be 100% “authentic” whatever that means, make it any less delicious?

Not a chance! Now, pass the plum sauce and wonton chips, please.

My take on General Tso’s is a departure from the typical composition. Replacing syrupy garlic sauce with a lighter, brighter soup broth spiked with vinegar and chilies, the results are richly invigorating well beyond greasy takeout. Crisp baked tofu perches at attention atop a coil of buckwheat noodles, tender and toothsome all at once.

One of two new vegan, gluten-free offerings from the JSL Foods line of Fortune Asian noodles, a package of Soba Buckwheat with Shoyu Flavor is the foundation of this unshakable recipe revamp. These new noodles can be found at Albertsons, Von’s, Lucky’s, Safeway, Carr’s, Dierbergs Markets and Cub Foods. Answering the call for their Fortune Asian Noodle Blogger Recipe Challenge, this fiery, bold, and somewhat sassy little beauty is my proud submission.

I’ve been burned out on contests lately, but I think that my General Tso, revived and injected with new life for more contemporary tastes, can take the heat. Go ahead and fight me for the title! Check out more inspiration from JSL Foods via Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

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Raise a Stink

With a name like “stinky tofu,” the deck is already stacked against this polarizing snack. Granted, the title is entirely well-earned, accurate if somewhat blunt, and not merely a result of cultural misunderstanding. The aroma will hit you a block away, wafting through night markets like a pungent homing beacon for those in the know. Tenaciously clinging to hair and clothing, the distinctive perfume follows you home, infused simply through proximity, whether or not you chose to partake. To the uninitiated or unadventurous, the scent is not exactly one you’d want to bottle and put in a diffuser. Rotting garbage, overflowing toilets, and decaying fish are sometimes cited as less favorable comparisons, yet fervent fans will travel an hour or more to reach their favorite hawker, slinging only the most odoriferous options imaginable.

Verified vegan stinky tofu  from 家湘涼麵 in Shilin Night Market

Do you like kombucha? Okay, then what about blue cheese? If you can stomach that, how do you feel about durian? Funky, fermented cubes of tofu is an acquired taste that may not be for everyone, particularly for western palates unaccustomed to such ripe stank. Though most flavor is discerned through our olfactory experience rather than our taste buds, the best renditions taste relatively mild in contrast to the assertive, pervasive stench.

Before sniffing out this controversial staple, be forewarned that most stinky tofu (written as 臭豆腐 or chòu dòufu) is not vegan. Traditionally fermented in a brine made with spoiled milk, fish innards, and/or dried shrimp, this “secret sauce” tends to be a closely guarded family secret, never to be disclosed under threat of death (or disownment.) In Asia, if you don’t speak the language fluently, your best bet is to start at dedicated veggie or Buddhist establishments. In the US, where dietary restrictions are the norm rather than the exception, you should be able to discern if there are any dairy or seafood additions, if not a full list of ingredients.

Texture is almost as critical as the infamously musty, gamey taste. Preparations run the gamut from practically raw to fried within an inch of their lives, but my favorite sort is deep fried, resoundingly crunchy on the outside, firm and meaty yet almost silky on the inside. The softer the tofu, the funkier the flavor, so it takes a bold eater to spring for those barely steamed squares instead.

Eating stinky tofu in Taipei, as is typically served in a plastic bag with wooden sticks

Condiments play an essential role in taming this tofu, each seasoned with an equally heavy hand to provide sufficient contrast. Fiery hot sauce and kimchi, sharp black vinegar, sweet and salty pickled vegetables, and crunchy garlic are all common and all highly recommended. Intense, bold flavors envelop your entire consciousness, punching harder with every subsequent bite, demanding your full attention from start to finish. It’s no passive grab-and-go snack, but a noteworthy event, even if it becomes a daily indulgence. .

In China and Taiwan, stinky tofu is classic comfort food, cheap and satisfying, great with (or after) a few drinks, and readily available all day, any day.

Stinky tofu from Dragon Gate Bar & Grille in Oakland, CA

Close your eyes, take a big bite, and breathe it all in. You may love it, you may hate it, but everyone should try stinky tofu at least once.