Crispy Sticky Black-Pepper Tofu

I have a confession to make: I don’t cook with tofu.

For a foodie who claims to eat everything, this is a somewhat embarrassing revelation. It’s not that I dislike its taste; in Japanese restaurants I’m perfectly happy to eat the delicate silken cubes nestling at the bottom of my miso soup bowl.

But when it comes to preparing it myself I’m at a loss. No matter what I do with it, I end up with a pile of rubbery, chalky-tasting cubes. When I wrote Zest for Life I spent more time developing the four tofu recipes in the book than any of the other dishes; no amount of marinating, seasoning, stewing, coating or crisping seemed to deliver the desired results.

That’s why today’s recipe is a contribution from the talented Edinburgh, Scotland-based blogger Kellie Anderson. Her blog, Food to Glow, should be anybody’s “go-to” site for delicious and innovative health recipes inspired by cuisines from around the world, including those of the Mediterranean and Asia, and she’s a dab hand at tofu. Each recipe is illustrated with Kellie’s beautiful photographs and her writing is wonderful: lively, evocative and often very funny.

Kellie isn’t “just” a food blogger though; she has an MS in Health Education and runs weight management, post-treatment and on-treatment courses at Maggies Cancer Caring Centres in Edinburgh, a UK cancer charity that supports cancer patients and their loved ones through and after treatment.

On her blog Kellie has a highly informative section on the link between cancer and nutrition in which she covers subjects like “Eating well with a colostomy or ileostomy,” “Help with a low-fiber diet” and “Easy to chew and easy to swallow recipe ideas.” Well worth a visit!

Before I hand you over to Kellie, let me briefly touch on the soy/breast-cancer controversy.

Soy contains phytoestrogens, plant chemicals that resemble estrogens, sex hormones produced by our bodies. Phytoestrogens are found in many foods, but soy has the highest concentration.

Opinions diverge over the role of soy in the context of cancer. Some say that phytoestrogens — and particularly the kind called isoflavones — may help prevent certain types of cancer, notably hormone-dependent cancers of the breast and prostate. For instance, Asian women are less prone to breast cancer than western women and some researchers think this is because they eat more soy.

However, conclusions from Asian studies do not necessarily apply to western populations: Asian women eat different types of soy foods, and from an earlier age, than western women. In Japan or China, commonly eaten soy products include tofu and fermented soy foods such as tempeh, miso and natto. These are less popular in the west, where most dietary isoflavones are derived from highly processed soy flour and protein commonly added as extenders and fillers in industrial baking and canning.

Moreover, Asian women generally eat more fish, fish- and bone broths and vegetables (including sea vegetables), drink less alcohol, are more physically active and have lower body weights than many western women; thus it is unclear whether their lower cancer incidence is due to their soy consumption or other dietary and lifestyle factors.

There is also some disagreement over whether soy is safe for breast-cancer survivors, amid concerns that phytoestrogens may promote cancer recurrence. The evidence is mixed and research is ongoing. Until the issue becomes clearer, many doctors recommend that women undergoing hormonal therapy or who have estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer avoid soy supplements because they contain high concentrations of isoflavones. However, small quantities (one serving a day) of soy foods as part of a varied and mixed diet are currently regarded as safe.

When you eat soy foods, choose the least processed ones, such as plain tofu, and preferably fermented ones like tempeh, miso and natto.  Avoid highly processed burgers, patties or sausages made with soy that are designed to mimic the taste and texture of meat. Even soy milk is often highly processed, usually contains added sweeteners and is packaged in containers lined with plastic materials whose estrogenic chemicals may leach into the milk; I prefer to avoid soy milk and use home-made almond milk instead.

And now, over to Kellie! (The section that follows is written by her.)

Crispy and Sticky Black Pepper Tofu (serves 2-3)

Today’s recipe got a very warm reception when it debuted in our house last year. And it’s not just because of the pulse of fragrant heat in every bite.

I have previously spoken of my admiration for the London chef Yotam Ottolenghi. His “Med-East” recipes and combinations are right up my street/pantry, and I take inspiration from his daring and up-front flavor combinations. Whenever I am afforded the luxury of a cookbook-testing Saturday, this is the book I most often reach for. I can spend hours caught up in customizing and playing around with his recipes.

This one is a case in point. I was fairly blown away by the Black Pepper Tofu recipe from Ottolenghi’s acclaimed book Plenty. But, it would probably be too punchy for many tastes – 8 chillies, 12 garlic cloves and 5 tbsp of pepper, and much too high in fat and salt to be healthy – however delicious. So, here I’ve toned down these elements while at the same time ramping up the fibre and vegetable content with glistening aubergines and earthy shiitakes.

Although, like a lot of Asian-style recipes preparation is key, this recipe is super easy to make, and tastes sublime with turmeric-scented baked basmati rice and a side of steamed Savoy cabbage. I find the salty, sweet, tart and hot buttons are well and truly pushed with this recipe. See what you think.

14oz/400g firm tofu, pressed gently between paper towels to remove any water

2 tbsp coarsely ground peppercorns (I use half black and half Vietnamese, but all black is fine)

4 tbsp cornstarch (cornflour), to coat the tofu

1 eggplant (aubergine), cut into 1 x 1 inch/2 x 2 cm pieces

3 ½ tbsp canola (rapeseed) or plain olive oil, divided

2 red onions, peeled, halved and sliced

2 fresh red chilies (mildish ones)

4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 tbsp chopped fresh ginger root

2oz/60g shitake mushrooms, sliced (half a supermarket pack)

2 tbsp sweet soy sauce

2 tbsp soy sauce or tamari sauce

2 tbsp dry sherry or Chinese rice wine

1 tbsp brown sugar

12 scallions (spring onions), trimmed and cut into 3 cm pieces 


Slick a baking tray with ½ tbsp of oil and place in a 400°F/200°C oven while you prepare the tofu pieces.

Pour four tablespoons of corn flour into a plastic bag, along with ½ of the crushed peppercorns.  Cut the tofu into 1 x 1 inch/2 x 2 cm pieces and add half of them to the bag, close the bag tightly and gently shake to coat the tofu.  Remove the tofu, tap off the excess corn flour and place onto a plate while you coat the rest of the tofu. Pop the tofu onto the heated tray and bake for 15 minutes, turning the pieces over after 10 minutes.

After you have coated the tofu, toss the eggplant slices in one tablespoon of oil and arrange them on another baking tray; bake for 15 minutes, until softened and starting to color.

In a large sauté pan, heat the remaining oil and add the onions, chilies, garlic and ginger; sauté slowly over a low-medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Next add the shiitake mushrooms, soy sauces, sherry, sugar and the remaining crushed peppercorns. Give it a good stir.

When heated through add the tofu, eggplant and scallions and cook for a further couple of minutes. The sticky shiny sauce should coat all of the ingredients; add a little water if you think it needs it – but as little as possible to keep the stickiness. Serve with baked turmeric rice and a steamed green vegetable such as cabbage, broccoli or bok choi.