Countless Chinese restaurants know: There’s something about the combination of black pepper and tofu that sings. And it’s got a rich, deep bass voice, too.
Like many other cooks, I first made black pepper tofu at home when I saw it in that instant-classic book “Plenty” by Yotam Ottolenghi. You fry cubes of tofu until crisp, then make a pungent sauce out of heaps of coarsely cracked black pepper, chili peppers, ginger, garlic and more. But I balked at a few things — 12 tablespoons of butter? Three kinds of soy sauce? — and soon started making it with my own adjustments. The dish is super-fiery, and I love spice, but I toned it down. I wanted that low, rumbling flavor of black pepper to dominate, not the sharp screech of serrano peppers.
I even riffed on the idea in my recent cookbook, dropping the butter entirely, slicing the tofu into bigger cutlets and encrusting them with the black pepper, then using them to top a broccoli-red pepper stir-fry.
In her beautiful new book, “Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite” (Chronicle Books, 2013), Sarah Copeland also takes a crack at the dish. Confession: I might like her version even better than Ottolenghi’s, and possibly as much as my own. She cuts back on the butter and chilies and soy-sauce varieties (actually, she cuts back on pretty much everything except the tofu), making the dish much quicker to prepare. When I made it, the result had perfect balance: a touch of sweetness (from a little sugar, not a third kind of soy sauce) that balances the black pepper — while keeping that deep rumble that I love so much.