Caramelized Tofu Triangles: Simple Make-Ahead Appetizer

Posted on 20 November 2016

Caramel-lacquered tofu triangles hit all the sweet, savory and salty notes that put guests in a good mood. The dark, shiny syrup sinks into the chewy triangles, so you can eat them with your fingers if you like.

Since they keep well in the fridge, you can make them way ahead and bring them out any time, as you would a wedge of brie. They travel well, too. Carry them to a holiday party in a Ziploc bag and free yourself from having to retrieve your plate (or help with the clean-up) when it’s time for goodbyes.

My daughter-in-law Raegan has made these for brunch, proving that they are as versatile as an eggy or cheesy dish. I also enjoy them as a great spontaneous snack when I’m staring into the fridge, looking for who-knows-what, and the caramel sheen catches my eye.

Best of all, the only fresh ingredient you need is tofu. Everything else comes from your pantry and refrigerator door. The miracle of caramelization builds deep, complex flavors from just a few ingredients. A restrained shake of five-spice powder adds ethereal warmth. Feel free to mess with quantities, but trust in the recipe’s overall simplicity. Stifle any urge to add fresh garlic or ginger.

I came across this recipephany when, a few years back, I set out to find a recipe for the tofu triangles we had at Boston’s Brown Sugar Café. It is from Barbara Tropp’s The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking (1982), a book that won James Beard honors and made her a star.

Tropp is also known for her innovative fusion of Chinese tastes with Western ingredients at her China Moon Café in San Francisco. Sadly, she only wrote one more book, The China Moon Cookbook, before she died of cancer in 2001 at age 53.

Tropp immersed herself in authentic Chinese cooking, and her recipes go on in great detail about proper Chinese techniques and tools. I found reading her long narrative a problem when I was watching a wokful of bubbling hot oil. So I slashed her directions way down. I may have simplified the recipe, but the simplicity of this dish comes straight from China.

Caramelized Tofu Triangles
Adapted from The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking by Barbara Tropp

  • 1 pound firm tofu
  • Peanut or corn oil for deep-frying (enough to cover the tofu, at least 2 cups), reserving 1 tablespoon for the syrup
  • 2 teaspoons black (thick) soy sauce (This is soy sauce thickened with molasses. So if you don’t have it, just use more regular soy sauce and a little more molasses.)
  • 1 ½ tablespoons regular soy sauce
  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons molasses
  • Pinch five-spice powder (optional)
  • 3 tablespoons water for the caramel syrup
  1. Slice tofu into 16 triangles. Lay them on paper towels and press out water.
  2. To fry tofu, heat oil in a wok until a bit of tofu bobs to the surface within 2 seconds. Slide triangles gently one-by-one into the oil—there will be lots of bubbling, so beware of spattering. If triangles stick together, nudge them apart. Fry until golden, about 4 minutes, turning as necessary. Remove and drain on paper towels. Strain oil and refrigerate for re-use. Reserve 1 tablespoon oil for the syrup.
  3. In a small bowl, stir together black soy sauce, regular soy sauce, sugar, molasses and (if using) five-spice powder. Adjust to taste.
  4. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in the wok. Add sugar mixture, stirring rapidly until it thickens in a full boil. (Watch to see it doesn’t burn!) Add triangles, turn off heat, and toss for about 2 minutes to glaze evenly. Stir 3 tablespoons of water into the bowl to dissolve the remaining sugar mixture, add it to the wok, and bring back to a boil. Toss 1-2 minutes, until syrup thickens. Turn off heat and let triangles cool in the wok about 10 minutes, tossing every few minutes to coat them evenly.
  5. Serve immediately or store for up to a week in the refrigerator, tossing occasionally to distribute the syrup. Serve cold or at room temperature.
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