You can consider nearly five-spice doufu gan (also known as dougan or tofu gan), which is available in Asian foods and is a separate item from the cream colored tofu blocks you find in a supermarket. While water-packed white tofu is bland and mushy (or silky), dry-packed Doufu Gan is dense, chewy, and nutmeg in color. It is pressed until it is firmer than any block of extra firm tofu (Gan means “dry” in Mandarin) and then braised in soy sauce and spices until it is stained and flavored throughout. And it takes a lot of work and time to prepare a delicious meal.
This stuff was so ubiquitous in my fridge that I stole a slice to gobble cold as a snack. It was probably an equally common sight in Taiwan, where my mother grew up – my grandfather often cut it into cubes to fry with peeled edamame and maybe a dash of chili oil for a cheap but high protein topper for rice. And in homes and restaurants across Taiwan, it’s often cut into long strips and fried alongside garlic chives, yellow chives, Chinese celery, or thinly sliced pork – or all of these. Its firm but pliable texture goes well with any crispy vegetable that you want to cut into thin pieces and toss in a smoking hot wok – like peppers, bean sprouts or green beans.
With five-spice Doufu Gan, there is no need for the manipulation that many recipes often instruct for water-filled white tofu blocks. There are people who recommend freezing tofu first so that some water can flow out after defrosting, making it drier and full of air bubbles that soak up the sauce. There are people who hold it down with something heavy for days, marinate and bake it for hours. And then there is the salt water soak or blanch that Fuchsia Dunlop advocated this in her Chinese cookbooks.
But if I want super-pressed, dry and aromatic tofu, I just buy Doufu Gan with five spices in the cooling aisle of an Asian food. You may also find smoked or unflavored versions of Doufu Gan. It freezes well and when I find it I fill in. (And if I want soft white tofu for a dish, like Mapo Tofu or Soondubu Jjigae, I buy it and keep it that way.)
Since Doufu Gan doesn’t break easily when tossed in a pan, you can cut it into matches or cubes and make it crispy all around until golden brown– It makes a great snack. Or chop it up as a base for a vegetarian dumpling filling with chopped allien and maybe carrots and cabbage. Serve cold in a salad with marinated cucumbers and pickled mustard greens, dressed with a bit of vinegar and sesame oil, or combine with a small amount of double-cooked pork belly to stretch it – Doufu Gan is often a meat addition rather than a substitute.
While I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love Doufu Gan with five spices on the first try, allegedly also tofu haters, I’ve found that those who haven’t grown up with it often just don’t know it existed. And even if you are aware of it, it can be harder to find. But once you find it, the hardest part of prep is over.