Going Bonkers For Sesame-Crusted Tofu with Spicy Dipping Sauce

Your new favorite way to enjoy tofu.
Your new favorite way to enjoy tofu.

“This is like fried chicken!”

That was the startling remark my husband exclaimed upon digging into “Sesame-Crusted Tofu with Spicy Dipping Sauce.”

And if you know his nickname is Meat Boy, then you know that is truly saying something about this entirely plant-based dish.

Crispy as can be, these pan-fried, sesame seed-coated planks of tofu get dunked into a spicy, garlicky sauce for a dish so addictive that even those wishy-washy about tofu will clamor for seconds and thirds.

This fabulous recipe is from “The Woks of Life” (Clarkson Potter, 2022), of which I received a review copy.

It’s the first cookbook by Bill, Judy, Sarah, and Kaitlin Leung, the New Jersey family who shot to fame with their eponymous The Woks of Life blog. It started out in 2013 as simply a personal way for them to document their family history through food. It has since turned into a sensation, growing into the most popular online English-language resource for Chinese cooking.

Patriarch Bill provides the technical know-how from his background cooking at his parents’ Chinese restaurant in New Jersey. Matriarch Judy makes sure that the traditions and regionalism of Chinese cuisine that she grew up with in China are highlighted. And daughters Sarah and Kaitlin specialize in vegetable-forward and weeknight fare.

The cookbook includes not only 100 recipes for their family favorites, but QR codes on various pages that link to more in-depth techniques.

Gather around your own family to make together “Vegetable & Mushroom Spring Rolls,” “Spicy Beef Biang Biang Noodles,” “Walnut Shrimp,” “Garlic Fried Chicken Wings,” and “Chinese Bakery Cream & Fruit Cake.”

An easy dipping sauce that gets a final flourish of hot oil.
An easy dipping sauce that gets a final flourish of hot oil.

This tofu recipe calls for firm style. Since I happened to have on hand extra-firm, I used that instead, which worked equally well.

The tofu gets cut into slices, each of which gets dredged in a mixture of sesame seeds, cornstarch, five-spice, and white pepper. Be sure to really press the coating onto each slab to ensure the sesame seeds really adhere well.

Fry the tofu slices in a pan with a little oil until each side is very golden brown.

For the simple dipping sauce, just arrange cilantro, scallions, minced garlic and Sichuan chili flakes in a small bowl. I confess I cheated a little since my pantry was full of Sichuan peppercorns but no Sichuan chili flakes. So, instead, I scraped some out of the top of a jar of chili crisp. And darned, if that didn’t do the trick.

Firm or extra-firm tofu will work well in this dish.
Firm or extra-firm tofu will work well in this dish.

After removing the tofu slices from the frying pan, add a little more oil and heat. Then, pour that residual hot oil over your dipping sauce ingredients, aiming to hit the garlic and chili flakes squarely. You’ll immediately start salivating at the aroma of the garlic being awakened fully.

The cornstarch plus the sesame seeds give the tofu great crunch, as well as a lovely nutty taste. The dipping sauce is garlicky, plus a little sweet, a tad tangy, and suffused with a throat-tickling heat.

The tofu dish works as an appetizer or a side dish. Or as a main dish with rice and stir-fried greens or other veggies.

The recipe says it serves 4. But take it from me, it really serves more like 2 — even if you have a self-professed tofu- hater at the table. Because this is the dish that will turn them.

This dipping sauce would also be delicious on any kind of dumpling, drizzled over steamed fish or poached chicken.
This dipping sauce would also be delicious on any kind of dumpling, drizzled over steamed fish or poached chicken.

Sesame-Crusted Tofu with Spicy Dipping Sauce

(Serves 2 to 4)

1 (14- to 16-ounce) package firm tofu, drained

1/3 cup untoasted sesame seeds

1/4 cup cornstarch

3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/4 teaspoon five-spice powder

1/4 teaspoon white pepper powder

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves and stems

2 scallions, white and green parts chopped

2 teaspoons minced garlic (about 2 cloves)

2 teaspoons Sichuan chili flakes

1/4 cup neutral oil

2 tablespoons light soy sauce

2 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon rice vinegar

Cut the block of tofu in half lengthwise, and then cut it into 1/2-inch-thick slices.

In a shallow bowl, combine the sesame seeds, cornstarch, salt, five-spice powder, and white pepper. Carefully coat the tofu slices in the mixture on both sides, taking care to press the mixture into the tofu slices evenly and thoroughly.

In the following order, add the cilantro, scallions, garlic, and chili flakes to a small heatproof bowl. (You will pour hot oil over it, and you will want the oil to mostly hit the garlic and chili flakes on top.)

Heat a large nonstick pan or cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add 3 tablespoons of the neutral oil and spread it around the pan. When the oil is shimmering, add the tofu slices. Fry for 4 to 5 minutes per side, until golden brown and crispy. Transfer the tofu to a serving platter.

In the same pan, add the remaining tablespoon oil and heat until shimmering. Then, pour the hot oil over the garlic-chili flake mixture, using a rubber spatula to scrape every last drop! Stir in the light soy sauce, water, sugar, and rice vinegar to make a dipping sauce, and serve it with the crispy tofu.

From “The Woks of Life” by Bill, Judy, Sarah & Kaitlin Leung

More Tofu Recipes to Enjoy: My Mom’s Tofu with Ground Pork

And: Spicy Tofu with Lamb and Sichuan Peppercorn by Andrea Nguyen

And: Chilled Soba Noodles with Spicy Orange Sesame and Tofu by Susan Feniger

And: Broiled Miso Tofu by Heidi Swanson

And: Cherry Tomato and Tofu Salad by David Chang

And: Coconut Tofu, Sour Beans

And: Shredded Tofu with Spicy Ground Chicken and Edamame by Melissa Clark

And: Silken Tofu with Avocado

And: Steamed Tofu and Trumpet Mushrooms with Ginger, Scallion, and Soy by Hetty McKinnon

And: Waffled Miso-Sesame Tofu

And: Warm Tofu with Spicy Garlic Sauce

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