Am I Chinese? No. Am I Cuban? No. Am I vegan? Yes. One out of three isn’t bad… right? So you may be asking yourself, what is a vegan white girl from Texas starting a blog about Cantonese and Cuban cooking? Well that has a lot to do with my wonderful fiancé. He grew up in Houston, Texas, but he was raised by Chino-Cubanos, or Chinese Cubans. Both his parents lived in Cuba, but did not meet till they both lived in Texas. Can you imagine my surprise when my Fiancé told me that his dad’s name was Fernando Chow? I never knew there was a Chinese population in Cuba and I still get a little amused and slightly in awe when I hear his parents speak perfect Spanish. It’s definitely not something you see every day! But I’ll write a post about their amazing story another time.
A big reason why I want to start this blog is because of my future parent-in-laws and my fiancé, who grew up eating both Cuban and Chinese food as staple dishes. It’s my way of appreciating and learning about them along with preparing myself to help carry those traditions over for our future children.
There is a dilemma though. I’m vegan. And traditional Chinese and Cuban food is usually meat centered. I’ve been vegan for almost a year now, though I usually refer to myself as plant-based since I do not live a perfect vegan lifestyle and would rather not set myself up for an attack by other vegans for not being vegan enough. Yes, that happens. Thankfully I have never experienced that yet, but I see it happen to other vegans I follow and I see how damaging it can be. With my cooking, it’s always 100% vegan and usually 95% healthy since I refrain from using oil and add very little salt and sugar to dishes.
When I first became vegan, my meat-loving fiancé seemed to think that we could never eat the same meal together ever again, and it took a while for my future PILs to understand that being vegan isn’t the same as vegetarian, since his sweet mother kept trying to feed me things with eggs, milk, and butter. This is another motivation for me to learn the dishes my future MIL loves to make for the family, (she’s an amazing cook who owns her own deli and has passed down her skills to my fiancé, praise the Lord) so I can also enjoy those meals with them.
The first dish I’m going to show you is a Cantonese dish I first had long before I even met my fiancé. I first tried Cantonese food at a restaurant in Arlington, Texas for my Vietnamese best friend’s birthday. I was actually vegetarian at the time and ordered a tofu dish just for myself. I did not understand the concept family style restaurants at the time and was slightly depressed watching all of my friend’s family members one by one rotate the lazy-susan on the table and eat the only dish that I could have before the plate was finally turned to me. Why didn’t I just tell them I could only eat the tofu? Well, majority of the party members could not speak English and I didn’t feel right complaining to my best friend on her birthday and causing a fuss when I already felt like a fish out of water. Luckily her older brother who spoke English pretty well was sitting next to me and asked why I was only eating the last few cubes of tofu. I explained my plight and, much to my embarrassment (but my stomach’s gratitude), he ordered two more plates of the salt and pepper tofu and told all his family members not to touch it because I don’t eat meat. I smiled sheepishly with bright red cheeks as they all chuckled and nodded at me. When the waitress came, I fell in love with the tofu instantly and was ecstatic to not have to share. To this day I still get a little aggressive and imagine stabbing grabby hands with my chopsticks when we eat there and someone tries to take some of my tofu. I can’t help it, I’m addicted!
Since then, I’ve met my fiancé Jon, who was very skeptical of this white girl claiming to know the best Cantonese food in the DFW area. To be fair, he has had decades of great Chinese cooking not only at home but also in Houston’s own Chinatown. However, I managed to get his stamp of approval, and he even admits that their version of salt and pepper tofu was the best he has had. Here comes the sad part. Jon and I have moved out of Texas to Virginia for his medical school, and while we managed to find a local Cantonese restaurant that does have salt and pepper tofu, it is nowhere near as yummy. I am also, (ugh) on a diet. So eating fried food, which this dish is normally fried, is a rare occurrence. What is a girl to do?!
I have to make my own.
This recipe is a pretty close replica of the flavors in my favorite dish, but instead of frying the tofu, a bake it, lowering the calorie and fat count significantly. My recipe does still call for oil, which I normally never cook with, but this is my comfort food and a little oil now and then is just going to happen. And it is SO worth it.
Here is my true love (don’t tell Jon!) in all its crispy, salty, spicy glory. In Chinese, it is called 椒盐豆腐. My goal is to someday learn Chinese, specifically Cantonese, but learning language is not one of my strong points unfortunately.
Now this isn’t the most traditional recipe, but it is important to me as my first introduction to Cantonese food and it’s definitely my favorite Chinese dish.
The recipe is simple and you probably have most of the ingredients all ready in your home. You’re going to start by getting the tofu ready. It is important to press the tofu to get as much of the moisture out so that the texture is right after you are done baking. The first time I made this, I use extra firm tofu, but it was kind of chewy and dense, so I think firm gives it the right texture without risking it from falling apart too much.
While you press the tofu, chop the onion, jalapeño, garlic, and prepare your sauce.
Sauté your veggie in a non sick pan over medium high heat using water instead of oil. Keep adding small amounts of water when the pan runs out until the onions start to turn clear. Once most of the water in the pan is gone, add the sauce and cook with the veggies for a minute or two and turn the heat down if you need to so nothing burns. Set aside and let’s start the tofu!
After pressing the tofu fit for at least 30 minutes, you now need to cube the tofu into bite size pieces, so the cuts could change depending on the size of your tofu.
Place your tofu into a mixing bowl. Add a tablespoon of soy sauce and then a tablespoon or less of olive oil, and toss to distribute evenly.
Place tofu on a parchment lined rimmed baking sheet and evenly space them so they don’t touch. Bake for about ten minutes at 400 degrees, flip them, and bake another ten minutes or until all sides are golden and crispy.
Now you can either mix the tofu in the pan with the veggies over a low heat, but it may make the tofu a little soggy. You could also place the veggies over rice and place the tofu on top. I love to add green onions or cilantro, or both!
Cantonese Salt and Pepper Tofu
Serves 2 as a main dish
For the Veggie Toppings:
- 1/2 a white or yellow onion
- 2 jalapeno, deseeded as much as you like
- 1 tbsp of chopped garlic
- 1/4 tsp of ground ginger powder
- 1 & 1/2 tbsp of light or regular soy sauce, your preference
- 1/2 tsp of brown sugar
- 1/4 tsp of white pepper
- 1/2 tsp of Chinese five spice
- 1/2 tsp of red pepper flakes, increase or decrease for your spice preference
- water for sauteing
For the Tofu:
- 1 block of extra firm tofu
- 2-3 tbsp of corn starch
- 1/2 tsp of black pepper
- 1/2 tsp of white pepper
- 1/2 tsp of Chinese five spice
- 1 tbsp of light or regular soy sauce
- 1 tsp of salt, or less if you prefer less salty
- 1 tbsp olive oil, use less if you prefer but it wont crisp as much
- Green onion or cilantro for topping
- Additional red pepper flakes for added spice if you like it really hot!
- Jasmine rice to serve with the tofu
- Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Take a large rimmed baking sheet and cover with parchment paper to keep the tofu from sticking.
- Take tofu from packaging and wrap in paper towels, then in a kitchen towel. Place on a flat surface and put something heavy on top to squeeze the water out. I like to use our cast iron pan to really get all the water out. Let it sit for at least 30 minutes.
- While you wait, dice your onion, mince the garlic finely, and slice one jalapeno into thin circles, and dice the other one. Take out as many of the seeds you want depending on your spice tolerance.
- Mix the soy sauce, sugar, pepper, ginger, Chinese five spice, and red pepper flakes in a small bowl till the sugar dissolves.
- In a pan, I like the non stick kind since I don’t use oil for majority of my cooking, heat it to medium-high, and add your garlic, jalapeno, and onion, adding water to keep everything from burning. Stir frequently until the onions start to go clear. Add your sauce mixture and cook an additional 1-2 minutes, lowering the heat if needed to keep everything from burning.
- Take the veggies and set aside in a separate bowl.Keep your pan out to mix the tofu and veggies later.
- When your tofu is drained, place on a cutting board and cut it into bite sized cubes (see picture above).
- Place the tofu into a large mixing bowl. Drizzle with the olive oil and soy sauce and gently toss to get it evenly covered.
- In another small bowl, combine the corn starch, pepper, salt, and Chinese five spice until it is mixed together well. Sprinkle it over the tofu evenly, tossing it gently to coat it and get rid of any powder spots.
- Place the tofu on the baking sheet and space out the tofu evenly so none of them are touching. Bake for 20-30 minutes until all the tofu is crispy and golden. Flip the tofu halfway through the cooking time.
- When they are finished baking, place the tofu in your skillet and add the veggies. Put the heat on medium low and mix until well combined. This can make your tofu a little less crispy, so you could also put the veggies on top of your rice and add the tofu on top of that to keep all the textures.
- Serve with rice and green onions or cilantro, or all three!
If you are feeling extra indulgent, you could fry the tofu in oil over medium-high heat. Let me know in the comments if you do and how it turned out so I can be oh so envious of you!