Crispy salt and pepper tofu fried to perfection delivering a crunchy outer layer with a silky soft middle. Served with a homemade sweet chilli jam, this Asian tofu side dish will make everyone happy.
- Why You’ll Love This Side Dish
- What Is in Chinese Salt and Pepper Mixture?
- White Pepper vs Black pepper
- Type Of Tofu to Use for Crispy Fried Tofu
- Different Ways For Fried Tofu
- How To Prepare The Tofu
- Recipe Overview
- Variations and Substitutions
- How to Serve
- Frequently Asked Questions
Why You’ll Love This Side Dish
At every good Chinese restaurant, there are generally a few classic salt and pepper dishes on the menu. The dishes are typically deep fried and then covered with a savoury salt and pepper mixture. We are big fans of salt and pepper squid and the finger-lickin’ salt and pepper fried chicken ribs. Hmm, seriously getting hungry even writing about it.
At home, I find deep frying too hard. We don’t have a deep fryer at hand, plus it uses a bit more oil than I like. Therefore to recreate salt and pepper chicken ribs or squid can be tricky.
However, one salt and pepper side dish can be made at home without all the deep frying kerfuffle: crispy salt and pepper tofu.
The reason being is that you can fry salt and pepper tofu with less oil and get the same crunchy results—less oil, healthier and utterly delicious with the Chinese salt and pepper mixture.
I love how the outside is crispy, yet the middle is silky soft. Plus, all that aromatic goodness with each bite. It’s a great vegan side dish alternative as well.
In Chinese restaurants, classic salt and pepper tofu is served with fried garlic, scallion, and chilli topping, but I decided to keep this recipe for salt and pepper tofu simple. I made a sweet chilli jam to serve on the side instead. This one will keep the adults and kids happy.
This salt and pepper tofu side dish is so simple to make that you will be repeating it over and over again.
What Is in Chinese Salt and Pepper Mixture?
You’ve seen it on the menu a few times now. So what is Chinese salt and pepper (椒盐) mixture made of?
There are variations to this mixture, but there are three main ingredients – salt, white pepper and five spice powder. The concoction is salty, spicy and full of aromatic flavours. It is a mixture you can use in many other recipes to add oomph to the overall dish.
Other than tofu, try Chinese salt and pepper mixture with fried chicken, squid, pan fried prawns, air fryer potato chips, pork chops, battered fish bites or even crab.
White Pepper vs Black pepper
This salt and pepper tofu recipe calls for ground white pepper. I would avoid using black pepper in the seasoning.
As much as you can generally use black and white pepper interchangeably, it’s not always. They provide a different flavour profile, and sometimes you don’t want black specs all over the dish.
I tend to use white pepper to season in Asian cooking due to the aromatics that suit that cooking style versus black pepper.
Black pepper is hotter and intense in flavour. Whilst white pepper has a milder heat but a more musky and earthy flavour.
Type Of Tofu to Use for Crispy Fried Tofu
No longer does tofu get a boring reputation. With a growing trend of plant-based diets, so many interesting recipes use tofu as the central feature. I love using tofu in so many dishes, including salads and sides. Another great Asian tofu recipe to try is our Sticky Tofu with Glass Noodle Salad.
Tofu is made of soybeans that are curdled and pressed into blocks. The different types of tofu differ on how much liquid is extracted from the soybeans during production. Firmer tofus will have less water, while soft tofu will have more water content and wobbly texture.
For crispy tofu, I use firm tofu. Using softer or silken tofu would be tricky. For this Asian tofu recipe, I chose smooth tofu with a firm texture. When fried, the firm tofu holds its shape with a crispy outer shell and soft, silky inside.
Different Ways For Fried Tofu
For this recipe, I decided to shallow fry my salt and pepper tofu using a large fry pan. With shallow fry, you get a lovely crispy crust but using less oil in the process. Of course, it will take a little longer than deep frying, but I prefer that compared to the amount of oil used.
The other ways you can fry crispy tofu include deep frying or air fryer. I generally don’t deep fry at home because I don’t like using too much oil, and we don’t have the right equipment.
I have an air fryer and have tried the salt and pepper tofu in the air fryer without success. I don’t believe the failed attempt was to do with the air fry process, but I am still a novice at being an air fryer cook. More air fry testing is needed!
How To Prepare The Tofu
When preparing fried tofu, always make sure the tofu is dry. When wet, the batter may not stick well to the tofu, and it will not crisp up as well in the shallow fry. Plus, it gets a bit dangerous when mixing water and oil together!
Remove tofu from packaging and use a paper towel to pat dry. You can press against a little too to squeeze excess water out.
Flavour/Texture: Crispy tofu outside with a soft silky inside, salt and pepper tofu is one of our favourite Chinese tofu side dishes. My kids would probably eat them as a main if they had the choice!
I love the savoury aromatic flavours of salt and pepper tofu, but to add something extra, the homemade sweet chilli jam delivers a tangy-sweet heat to balance it out.
Ease: The recipe is not complicated but just takes a little time to shallow fry salt and pepper tofu until it is at the right crispness. The homemade sweet chilli jam can just bubble along whilst you make the salt and pepper tofu.
Time: Together with the sweet chilli jam, the process will take approximately 20 minutes to prep and another 20 minutes to cook. The time may vary depending on how big your frypan is and how many batches of tofu you need to fry.
These are the ingredients you need in the crispy salt and pepper tofu:
Tofu: Select a firm or regular tofu for this Asian tofu recipe. Soft or silken tofu will hold too much water content to deep fry.
Corn starch: For a crispier outer crust, I used corn starch for the batter. Corn starch will give a thinner and lighter crust and not too heavy a batter for fried tofu. There is no need to dredge the tofu in egg and flour.
Rice flour: In with the corn starch, I added a small part of rice flour. This also helps with the crispness. If you don’t have rice flour, you can just use corn starch.
Salt: You want to have a good balance of salt in this dish to match the white pepper and five spice powder.
White pepper: White pepper is preferred over black pepper in this Chinese salt and pepper mixture. What I want is a mild heat but with a more aromatic fragrance. White pepper is more commonly used in Chinese cooking.
Chinese five spice powder: Readily purchased at your local Asian grocery store or supermarkets, five spice powder is the quintessential Chinese spice mixture. Chinese five spice powder is made of cinnamon, fennel seeds, whole cloves, star anise and peppercorns.
Sugar: I added a little bit of white sugar to the salt and pepper mixture to balance the savoury flavours.
Vegetable oil: Neutral oil required to fry the tofu. You can choose whichever oil you have at home.
Chilli: Depending on how hot you would like your homemade sweet chilli jam, you can use one or more chillies in the recipe. Longer chillies tend to have less heat compared to a small bird’s eye chilli.
Garlic: I added garlic for extra flavour and depth to the sweet chilli jam.
Canned tomatoes: Rather than using many chillies, I chose to use tomatoes to form the base of the sweet chilli jam. The reason being I do not want a hot chilli jam but a milder, sweet version.
In addition, tomatoes give a sweet tang and lush texture. I used canned cherry tomatoes I had in the pantry, but standard crushed tomatoes work too.
Sugar: To add sweetness to the chilli jam.
Rice wine vinegar: If you don’t have rice wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar is fine. This is to balance the sugar.
Soy sauce: To add a little extra savoury flavour in the tomatoes and chilli.
Follow these instructions on how to make crispy salt and pepper tofu and sweet chilli jam:
We will start with the sweet chilli jam. The reason being you can have this cooking in the background whilst preparing the salt and pepper tofu.
Finely chop chillies and mince garlic.
In a medium sized pot, add tomatoes, chopped chillies, minced garlic, sugar, rice wine vinegar and soy sauce.
Stir and cook over medium-low heat until the mixture reduces to a thick sauce.
Remove from heat and let the sweet chilli jam cool down.
To make the salt and pepper tofu, remove tofu from packaging and pat dry with a paper towel.
Cut tofu into small bite sized cubes.
In a mixing bowl, add rice flour, corn starch, salt, white pepper, sugar and five spice powder.
Ensure the tofu is pat dry, and then add it to the flour mixture.
Thoroughly coat tofu with flour mixture.
Heat half the oil in a large frypan over medium-high heat.
When oil is hot, add a few tofu pieces and fry until crispy and golden brown on all sides. Don’t overcrowd the frypan, as this will reduce the heat of the oil.
Once done, remove crispy fried tofu cubes and set aside on a paper towel.
Repeat the frying process until all the tofu is cooked. Replenish the oil as required.
Place all crispy salt and pepper fried tofu on a serving plate.
Sprinkle it with extra salt and white pepper to taste.
Put sweet chilli jam in a small bowl and serve with salt and pepper tofu.
Variations and Substitutions
Sweet chilli jam: You can serve salt and pepper tofu without the sweet chilli jam. The classic way to serve this dish is to toss salt and pepper tofu in garlic, scallions and chilli stir fry at the end.
Tofu variations: As I mentioned before, it is best to use a firm or regular tofu for this recipe. However, if you would like to try something different, you can use egg tofu. They are softer than regular tofu but have less water content, so will work in shallow fry. Amy used egg tofu in this salad recipe.
Chinese five spice powder: If you don’t have five spice powder, you can substitute with crushed Sichuan peppercorns or a pinch of ginger powder.
How to Serve
Here are some main dishes that will go well with crispy salt and pepper tofu:
Vegan teriyaki soba noodles stir-fry: For your vegan dinner tonight, combine these fantastic crispy salt and pepper tofu with a soba noodle stir-fry. This noodle recipe comes together in 30 minutes and only requires a handful of simple ingredients.
Zucchini chickpea curry: This is a deliciously simple vegan on pot dish that’s perfect for feeding a family. Serve it up with these fantastic crispy salt and pepper tofu dipped in a sweet chilli jam. What a meal!
Chicken fried rice: This recipe contains a secret ingredient that brings lots of great flavours to this classic Asian dish. Stir fried rice with chicken, eggs and mixed vegetable is the perfect easy weeknight dinner. In keeping with classic Asian dishes, this salt and pepper tofu will complement the fried rice perfectly.
Frequently Asked Questions
You can make the sweet chilli jam ahead of time. It will store well in the fridge in an airtight jar for a week. However, whilst you can prep the tofu and batter prior, salt and pepper fried tofu will be best served hot and crispy.
If you have any leftover sweet chilli jam, you can store it in the fridge to use with another recipe. Try it with sausages, pan fried chicken, pork chops or drizzle over baked eggs.
Using a combination of rice flour and corn starch will help make the tofu crispy. Both rice flour and corn starch produce a lighter and thinner batter compared to plain flour, which will crisp up nicely when fried.
Corn starch is made from the starch that comes from corn kernels. It is commonly used in recipes to thicken liquids or add a layer of richness in the stews and gravies. In Australia, we tend to use the terms corn starch and corn flour interchangeably.
However, I understand in America, corn flour is something completely different. Corn flour is made from the whole kernel, not just the starchy component like corn starch. The coarser grain is known as cornmeal and is used to make grits, cornbread and polenta. Whilst a finer version would be used as cornflour.
Corn starch is typically gluten free, whilst corn flour is not.
Chinese five spice powder is based on five traditional elements: fire, water, wood, earth and metal. It is important to balance the five elements in the body in traditional Chinese medicine, and some corresponding herbs and spices help with this process hence why the Chinese five spice powder came about.
Made from cinnamon, cloves, star anise, peppercorns and fennel seeds, we use five spice powder in a myriad of recipes to add aromatic flavours. You can experiment more with this spice mix with our Five Spice Tofu Salad.
When I crave something a little more crunchy and full of aromatic flavour, this is my go-to recipe. Plus, we can’t always get to our local Chinese restaurant to eat our fave dishes so my kids can enjoy salt and pepper tofu at home.
Crispy on the outside with a soft, silky inside, you will love this salt and pepper tofu recipe with a homemade sweet chilli jam. Try it and let us know how you go!
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Ingredient Pairing Ideas
If you’d like to create your own side dish or salad and have an ingredient you’d like to hero, we have some great pairing suggestions to help you work out what flavours go well together!
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Salt and Pepper Tofu with Sweet Chilli Jam
Sweet Chilli Jam
Click on the toggle below for conversion to US Cooking Units.
Sweet Chilli Jam
- Finely chop chillies.
- Mince garlic.
- In a medium sized pot, add tomatoes, chopped chillies, minced garlic, sugar, rice wine vinegar and soy sauce.
- Stir and cook over medium-low heat until the mixture reduces to a thick sauce.
- Remove from heat and let the sweet chilli jam cool down.
Salt and Pepper Tofu
- Cut tofu into small bite sized cubes. Pat dry tofu with a paper towel.
- Add corn flour, rice flour, salt, pepper, sugar, and Chinese five spice powder together in a mixing bowl.
- Add tofu in a dry mixture and thoroughly coat the tofu.
- Heat half the oil in a large fry pan over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add a few tofu pieces and fry until crispy and golden brown on all sides.
- Remove crispy fried tofu cubes and set aside on a paper towel.
- Repeat the frying process until all coated tofu is cooked. Replenish the oil as required.
- Place all crispy tofu on a serving plate.
- Sprinkle it with extra salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve with sweet chilli jam.
- Use a firm or regular tofu for this recipe, or try egg tofu.
- If you don’t have Chinese five spice powder, you can substitute it with crushed Szechuan peppercorns or a pinch of ginger powder.
- Any mild vinegar like apple cider vinegar can replace rice wine vinegar.
- You can serve salt and pepper tofu without the sweet chilli jam. The classic way to serve is to toss salt and pepper tofu in a garlic, onion and chilli stir fry at the end.
- Adjust the heat of sweet chilli jam to your liking. Use hotter chillies like bird’s eye chillies if you prefer more heat.
*Disclaimer: Nutritional information provided is an estimate only and generated by an online calculator.
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