Tasty, easy, and fast, “Catfish” Tofu — which contains no catfish — is my primary go-to dish on nights when I’m too tired to do anything but am having one of those gotta-get-dinner-on-the-table-NOW-or-else-hungry-toddler-is-gonna-have-a-meltdown nights. In a pinch, you could omit the cilantro, green onion, and black pepper, though the flavor will not be as nuanced.
While the tofu is simmering, I’ll make a pot of rice and do one of the following: (a) wash, chop, and boil for several minutes water spinach or baby bok choi in several inches of water seasoned with sea salt and a bit of olive oil, drain, and serve; (b) pour boiling water over frozen peas, drain, and serve; or (c) slice up some cucumbers, tomatoes, etc., and serve alongside the rice and caramelized tofu. If I feel a pressing need to provide dessert (rare), I reach for fresh fruit and serve it sliced.
If possible, use a claypot. (See notes below.) The tofu cubes must sit in one layer in the bottom of the pot, so of course, the larger the claypot, the larger the yield. My 1 1/2 quart clay pot has just enough room to cook the 3/4 lb. of tofu required in this recipe. Go ahead and increase the yield if your pot can accommodate it.
This dish is so named because originally it was an adaptation of a caramelized catfish recipe. I had no catfish but had a box of tofu in the refrigerator and used it instead.
- 2 T sugar
- 1 1/2 T or so water (slightly more if tofu is drier, less if tofu releases a lot of moisture when cooked)
- 2 minced large garlic cloves and/or equivalent amount of finely chopped shallots
- 1 T olive oil
- 2 1/2 T Vietnamese-style fish sauce or scant 2 T Thai-style fish sauce
- hot sauce (opt)
- 3/4 lb tofu (medium and firm work best)
- cilantro, chopped or cut into short segments
- green onion, finely cut into rings or cut into short segments
- 1/2 t freshly ground black pepper
Finely chop garlic and/or shallots. Chop cilantro and green onion. Grind black pepper or pound with mortar and pestle. Cut tofu into roughly 1.5″x1.5″ cubes.
Heat claypot over medium-low. Add sugar and water to wet it. Increase heat to medium. When sugar has melted and liquid begins to look unusually bubbly, add garlic/shallots and olive oil. Stir and cook for a minute or two. Add fish sauce and tofu, coating all sides with the sauce.
Cover. Simmer till much, but not all, of the liquid has evaporated, maybe 10 to 15 minutes or so. Uncover and simmer several minutes longer to reduce sauce. (Make sure pot still has enough liquid, otherwise tofu will burn. Turn off heat. Add black pepper, cilantro, and green onion on top.
3 to 4 servings
Used for centuries around the world, clay cooking vessels hold the heat well, cook evenly, and are great for stewed and simmered dishes. I bought my Chinese-style, lidded 1 1/2 quart claypot for $5 at a restaurant supply store, though any Chinese market with a decently-stocked housewares aisle should have these pots. Claypots are easy to use but require some special handling. Before using it the first time, wash your clay pot and then soaked it in water overnight. When using it, opt for low to medium heat and a gradual change of temperatures. Super high heat is not generally necessary, as this pot with its lid on holds the heat extremely well for a very long time. Clay cannot handle a sudden change in temperatures (e.g. plunging a hot pot into cold water or onto a very cold tile counter). Clay works fine directly on a gas range, but electric and ceramic stoves will require a diffuser.
Do include the fresh ground pepper at the end, as it adds a bold, aromatic note to the tofu’s composition.
You could probably press the tofu to make it firmer and more like catfish flesh and do something with fu jook (the skin that develops on the top of simmering soymilk) to make vegan “catfish skin,” but I’m not going to go through all that trouble just yet. One day, maybe. But not today.
Ingredient Sources – What I Use
- olive oil – Whole Foods 365, Costco Kirkland Signature
- Vietnamese-style fish sauce – Tra Chang
- Thai-style fish sauce – Squid
- hot sauce – Tabasco Original
- tofu – House (stateside), Yong Fu Corporation (Saipan)
- black pepper – Spicely, McCormick