The Handoff: Panko Crusted Tofu with Cabbage & Fennel Slaw
by Jessie Chien
As I pondered which protein to pair with my light and breezy Chinese cabbage and fennel slaw idea, I experienced a bout of chef’s block. I often find myself cooking with chicken and pork simply because they are the most abundantly sold at the wet market – I’ll be the first to admit that it is not exactly the most sustainably minded practice.
I went to the market again for inspiration, where I spied rows of whole fish laid out for display. Suddenly I had dreams of searing a juicy, spiced filet-of-something using the spices in Chitra’s Indian Style Shakshuka – perfect with a slaw and zesty cilantro dressing! But the mention of preparing fish caused my boyfriend to shudder and I was abruptly reminded of why I generally steer clear of local fish.
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The seafood industry in China is one to be particularly cautious about. Friends often joke that the fish at the market are netted straight from our adjacent Pearl River – a river that cargoes hundreds of ships each week, a river that flows as green and murky as any other I’ve seen. I looked up some articles on seafood safety and sustainable aquaculture in China, and the more I read the less I wanted anything to do with it.
With fish and meat decidedly out of the picture, I then turned – literally and figuratively – to fresh tofu, as abundant as ginger and cilantro at the market.
Blocks of fresh, soft, firm, fried, puffy, dried tofu are sold at the outdoor markets in China; distant creamy cousins to the sterile packaged white blocks at the supermarkets back home. Sold on large pallets or in baskets, sections are sliced off by request, and priced per block or by weight- as little as 10 cents for two small blocks of soft tofu. Tofu was the perfect protein to feature in this dish – malleable to any cooking technique and flavor profile, as well as being a long-time favorite of mine.
Even with fresh tofu, I wanted the flavors as to be bold as I had imagined with a seared fish. A friend had gifted us a small jar labeled Tandoori spice from her cupboard before she moved back to the States, (we’re not allowed to ship any edible items out of China – even spices and dried goods!). With an Indian-inspired dish to relay from, I decided it was the perfect way to season the tofu and bridge the gap from India to China.
To create the texture and the ultimate sear that I craved, I dug out a box of panko crumbs from Whole Foods that I had lovingly carried with me from the States. I’m aware that American-made panko crumbs aren’t the most local of ingredients in Southern China, but before coming abroad I made sure to stock my kitchen shipment with tons of local and organic dried goods – as much as my shipment and the laws would permit. In my opinion, stocking your pantry as you travel abroad or move from one place to another is a part of eating smart and eating well. Much of my cooking here uses 80% ingredients from the wet market, 10% from the supermarket or local convenience store, and then the remaining 10% from my pantry and cupboards. In truth, it’s pretty similar to the way that I’ve always cooked; it’s a ratio that favors flavor, sustainability, and familiarity, with results that I’m always more than pleased with. This recipe accurately reflects that ratio!
Panko Crusted Tofu with Cabbage & Fennel Slaw with Cilantro -Ginger Dressing
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes
Cilantro- Ginger Dressing
- 4 shallots, mince
- 3 green onions, white parts only, minced, greens reserved for salad
- 5 cups cilantro, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
- 1/3 cup sesame oil
- 2 tbs ginger, minced
- 2 tsp Japanese (Kewpie) mayonnaise
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 2 lemons (Juiced)
- 1 tsp fresh ground pepper
- Mix onions, ginger and shallots with rice vinegar and lemon juice – the acidity will help cut through the of the onions, ginger and shallots. As these ingredients are “marinating”, proceed to pick the cilantro leaves off the stems, rinse, and chop.
- Combine chopped cilantro with the acid-onion mixture, along with sesame oil, mayonnaise and Dijon mustard. Stir together. Add salt and pepper. The vinaigrette will taste very sharp right now- very salty and very acidic, but after a few minutes will start to mellow out.
- Using an immersion blender or regular blender, pulse the vinaigrette for about 30 seconds, creating a smooth dressing. If the dressing is still too sour, add a teaspoon of granulated sugar.
- Cover and let sit for 10-15 minutes.
Panko Crusted Tofu
- 2 eggs
- 1 1/2 lbs firm tofu (1-2 packages store-bought tofu)
- 1/4 cup flour
- 2 tsp Tandori spice
- 1 tsp cumin
- to taste - salt and pepper
- 6 Tbs canola oil
- Drain and rinse the tofu. Slice into 1/2 inch slices. Using a tea towel or paper towel, pat each piece dry and set aside.
- Set up your breading station: in one medium-sized shallow bowl, beat eggs and add a pinch of salt and pepper. In a second medium-sized shallow bowl, mix flour with a pinch of salt and pepper. In a third bowl, combine panko crumbs with spices, and add another pinch of salt and pepper. This may seem like a lot of salt and pepper, but it’s not.
- Take your (patted dry) tofu steaks that you’ve set aside. One by one, bread the tofu: Using one hand, put the tofu in the flour and coat. Gently shake off excess flour, and set in the egg bath. Now using your other hand, bathe the tofu in the beaten egg, and transfer to the panko crumbs with the same hand. Finally using your original flour/non-eggy hand, completely coat tofu with the panko crumbs (warning: your hands will become slightly stained form the Tandoori spice!). Using this method of alternating hands, keeping one hand dry and one hand wet, makes for a less messy process.
- Continue breading all your tofu, setting aside on a plate as you finish each one.
- When you have finished breading, add 3 Tbs canola oil into a skillet and heat on high. When the oil is ho t- ideally just before it starts smoking – turn down the heat to med-high and begin to fry your tofu, dropping in 3-4 pieces at a time, depending on the size of your skillet. Cook tofu for 1-2 minutes on each side, until golden brown.
- Remove from the skillet onto paper towels or a rack to cool.
- Repeat with the remaining tofu, dumping out the oil and contents of the pan once you’ve completed half of the tofu. Wipe the skillet clean with a dry paper towel, and using the remainder of the oil (3 Tbs) to fry the rest of the breaded tofu.
- 1 head of cabbage
- 1 carrot
- 1 fennel bulb
- 1 guava
- 1 bunch, about 4 cups packed of watercress
- 2 green onion – white art reserved for the dressing
- Thinly slice cabbage and fennel with a mandolin or knife.
- Julienne carrot and guava with a grater or knife.
- Thoroughly rinse watercress, picking through the watercress to remove the stems.
- Assemble altogether for the salad, and top with green onions. When tofu has cooled for 5-10 minutes, place a few pieces of tofu on each plate, and drizzle with a generous spoonful of dressing.
Jessie is an intern for RecipeRelay, which helps her keep in touch with the changing of seasons around the world. She keeps a diary of her Chinese market and travel adventures in her own blog, www.jessbopeep.com