Szechuan tofu and peppers is a delicious and spicy Chinese style stir fry that’s healthier and quicker to make than takeout. I’m sharing my easy recipe that can be made with fried or baked tofu, and uses a simple homemade Szechuan sauce made with easy to find ingredients.
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In my family we’ve always been huge fans of Chinese recipes with tofu. Nothing beats a combination of tofu and veggies cooked in a flavorful sauce and served over rice.
I don’t usually mind chopping 5-6 types of vegetables to make a stir-fry, but every now and then it’s nice to simplify things and use just one or two.
This is how I got an idea for today’s Szechuan tofu recipe.
In short, I used a method I’d described in my recipe for tofu tacos with fajita vegetables (not Asian, I know, but bear with me): cook the tofu and vegetables separately, then add both of them back to the skillet, and toss in a flavorful sauce until it thickens.
I’m also using this method in my sweet chili tofu and vegetables recipe.
For this recipe, I decided to go with just bell peppers and onions, and chopped them in fairly large 1/2-inch pieces. I cooked them quickly in a hot skillet to get some of the pieces slightly charred around the edges while retaining their crunch.
To cook tofu, I sliced it into thick rectangles and fried them in the same skillet I used for the vegetables – see my method here. If you don’t want to fry the tofu (or try to limit oil in your diet), I’ve also included instructions for baking it in the oven oil-free.
See the instructions for both cooking methods over here and in the recipe card below.
To finish my tofu and peppers stir-fry, I used a homemade Szechuan-style sauce made with just a few simple ingredients. If you aren’t familiar with Szechuan sauce (or want to know how I simplified it), read on.
What is Szechuan Sauce?
Szechuan sauce (also spelled Sichuan, Szechwan, and Schezwan) is a thick, spicy sauce originating from the Szechuan province in China. Its flavor can vary from recipe to recipe, but what most versions have in common is its bold, spicy flavor achieved by using lots of garlic and chili peppers.
Szechuan-style dishes are famous for two kinds of chili peppers traditionally used in them.
Tien Tsin pepper is a small red chili pepper usually used whole to enhance the food with its hot, spicy flavor. You’ve probably seen them in some Chinese takeout dishes. Well-stocked Asian stores often sell them dried. These chilies are too hot to eat by themselves, so they are usually taken out of the food before eating.
Szechuan peppercorns (also known as sichuan peppercorns) are another traditional ingredient used in Sichuan cuisine. They resemble black peppercorns but usually have a pink or red color with a citrusy aroma and a bold, spicy flavor.
As I was researching Szechuan peppercorns, I found out two interesting facts:
1. Their spiciness is different from other spicy peppers. The active component, hydroxy-alpha-sanshool molecule, numbs nerve receptors in your mouth for a few minutes, and makes your lips vibrate with a frequency of 50 hertz. (Don’t believe me? See the source here.)
It is believed that this numbness helps people enjoy the flavor depth of other spicy peppers in the dish they’re eating without feeling like their mouth is about to burst in flames.
2. In 1968 the US Department of Agriculture banned Szechuan peppercorns from being imported from China. The concern was that they could be contaminated with a citrus tree disease (interestingly, the trees that grow these peppercorns belong in the citrus family genus rather than the pepper family).
Numerous contraband attempts were intercepted in the years that followed, but it’s easy to assume that the peppercorns still found their way in.
The ban was finally dropped in 2005 on the condition that the peppercorns get heated for at least 10 minutes before import to kill the citrus disease bacteria. Today you don’t have to risk jail time to indulge in their numbing spiciness, and get them on Amazon instead.
How I Simplified My Szechuan Sauce
Since I don’t believe it’s worth it to bring in contraband for any dish ever (coupled with the fact that I’m not super picky), I decided to simplify the sauce I made for my Szechuan tofu and peppers stir-fry.
To infuse the sauce with its signature spicy flavor, I used chili garlic sauce (this one is my favorite). I’m pretty sure sriracha will work just as well.
Instead of omitting the peppercorn aspect of this sauce completely, I added some ground black pepper. Freshly ground black pepper would work best because its aroma is more pronounced, but regular pre-ground pepper will work too.
Other sauce ingredients in my Szechuan-style sauce:
Soy sauce, rice vinegar, brown or coconut sugar, granulated garlic, ground ginger (fresh garlic and ginger can be used instead), cornstarch, and some water.
Do I use Fried or Baked Tofu in this recipe?
Either fried or baked tofu can be used to make my Szechuan tofu and peppers.
Fried tofu is my family’s favorite for stir-fry dishes, but if you’re watching your oil intake, feel free to bake it instead.
How to Cut The Tofu
Most recipes that include bite-sized tofu pieces tell us to cut raw tofu into small pieces first, and then cook them together in a skillet, flipping often to ensure that they get browned on all sides.
But from my personal experience, flipping 80 small pieces of tofu during cooking can feel like a major pain in the rear. That’s why I suggest slicing the whole tofu block crosswise into thick rectangles, then cooking those rectangles together in a skillet, flipping them only once.
After the cooked tofu cools off slightly, slice each rectangle into whatever size pieces you want. Voila – the same result, but with much less effort.
The same method works for baking the tofu (see below). You can either cook the large tofu rectangles and slice them afterwards, or use this basic tofu baking method.
How to Cook the Tofu (With or Without Oil)
To fry tofu for this recipe (with oil), preheat a large heavy-bottomed or cast iron skillet over medium heat. Add 1 tsp of high-heat oil like avocado oil (or spray with cooking spray).
Arrange tofu rectangles in a single layer, and cook 3-4 minutes until the bottom turns golden brown. Flip and cook another 3-4 minutes, then set aside.
To bake the tofu (oil-free method), preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C). Arrange tofu rectangles on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake 12-15 minutes until the top surface starts turning golden, then flip and cook 5-7 minutes more.
Once the tofu has been cooked, let it cool slightly, then slice each rectangle into bite-sized pieces. Set aside until needed.
Other Ways to Use Szechuan Sauce
While it’s fantastic in veggie stir-fry, Szechuan sauce can be used in a variety of ways. It can be added to fried rice or noodles, used as a condiment for non-traditional things like scrambled tofu or eggs (if you’re not vegan).
Alternatively, this spicy Asian-style sauce can be used for dipping gyoza dumplings, egg rolls, etc. McDonalds famously offered their version of Szechuan dipping sauce back in the 90s to celebrate the release of Disney’s Mulan movie – it was intended for dipping nuggets.
More Tofu Dishes From the Blog
Hope you liked my Szechuan tofu recipe! If you use my Szechuan sauce to make other Chinese recipes with tofu, I’d love to hear how they come out!
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