I’m no tofu expert – in fact, I’d go so far as to describe myself as a reformed sceptic – but there are two things I do know about it: first, its creamy blandness is a great foil for other flavours (see mapo tofu); and second, it is transformed, Cinderella-style, by frying, with its soft wobbliness irresistible against the crunch of batter. Both these qualities make it an ideal plant-based substitute for white fish in the classic chippie supper, offering a similar delicacy of flavour and satisfying contrast of textures without the distracting saltiness of halloumi or the chew of banana flowers, which are sometimes used as fish-free alternatives instead.
After posting pictures of my various attempts online, I was astonished by the vehemence of the response, to which I say, no one’s forcing you to try it, but you shouldn’t knock it until you have – after all, although tofu isn’t without its environmental concerns, few would deny that we need to be more mindful of the fish we eat and, almost as importantly, this is bloody delicious.
Most recipes call for extra-firm tofu, with a few simply specifying firm. In this instance, once it’s been pressed and battered, it doesn’t seem to make a great deal of difference, though I prefer the marginally softer texture of the latter. How you treat it is of greater importance – there’s no need to simmer it with salt and lemon to “add firmness”, as the Vegetarian Society recommends, because white fish is no firmer than tofu and certainly never chewy. The same goes for the time-honoured Japanese technique of freezing and then thawing the tofu before use, so it takes on the texture of a sponge – great if you want it to absorb maximum flavour from a marinade or to develop a crisp exterior, but completely unnecessary if you want it to retain its smooth, milky magnificence within a crunchy, batter jacket.
One idea that is worth exploring, however, is cutting the tofu into large flakes, to mimic the texture of fish, as suggested by Sam Turnbull of the It Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken blog, who herself adapted it from Jules The Easy Vegan, who … well, whoever came up with it, it’s both obvious, and very effective. I’m going to combine their methods by not cutting through the fish entirely, and sprinkling seasoning into the cuts, rather than faffing about with toothpicks. (Note that, with extra-firm or firm tofu, there’s no real need to press it for this recipe.)
Tofu is not, in general, good at absorbing marinades, unless you’ve pressed most of the water out of it, but that’s no problem here, because white fish doesn’t have an assertive flavour – so while Turnbull’s overnight bath of vegetable stock, lemon juice, white miso paste, onion powder, garlic powder and salt makes her tofu taste pretty good, it’s nothing like cod or haddock. The same goes for Bosh’s lemon juice, white wine and caper brine version. As in the original dish, such tangy flavours are better saved for the accompanying sauce.
That said, fish does taste, well, fishy, and the best way to recreate this with plant-based ingredients is to make use of a plant that grows in the same environment, namely seaweed. It’s common to use a sheet of nori (dried laver) to act as the “skin”, which is a nice idea even if you’re northern and shudder at the thought of skin on battered fish, but Jules’ notion of using seaweed flakes to season between the flakes ensures you get the flavour in every bite.
Cauldron makes a kind of tartare-flavoured paste with chopped gherkins, capers and flour to smear on top of the tofu, which looks and tastes great, but I’d like to stick as close as possible to the original and save those ingredients for the accompaniment.
This is, of course, the same deal as with battered fish, as long as you make sure the beer you use is vegan-friendly, if that’s a concern. No need to add seaweed flakes, as Tofoo recommend, and, if you’re cooking British-style fish and chips, steer clear of the paprika, garlic powder, onion powder and turmeric employed by Turnbull and Loubna of the Glowing Blush blog – the pleasure here is in quiet flavours, doused in salt and vinegar. Hey, I don’t make the rules.
Instead, volume is the thing to concentrate on; baking powder is helpful, as is using a carbonated liquid such as cold beer or fizzy water (beer gives a better flavour, so even if you don’t drink, you might want to consider investing in some alcohol-free stuff for this dish). The Vegan Recipe Club offers the most voluminous of batter recipes, which has no need of Bosh’s second coat, because it’s crunchy enough already.
Loubna rolls the battered fish in panko breadcrumbs and bakes it. While perfectly nice, I feel compelled to add battered tofu to the list of things, like doughnuts and pakoras, that should be deep-fried or nothing – even Turnbull’s shallow frying doesn’t really work, because it takes too long, meaning the batter cooks unevenly. If deep-frying scares you (and, with the appropriate amount of caution and respect for hot oil, it shouldn’t), I’m afraid this is not the recipe for you.
Serve with chips (you’ve got the oil going anyway, so you may as well make your own and keep them warm in the oven while you fry the tofu), proper mushy peas and vegan tartare sauce. Oh, and lots of salt and vinegar. That’s mandatory.
Prep 15 min
Cook 4 min
140g firm or extra-firm tofu
1 sheet nori
100g plain flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp fine salt
140ml cold beer, or sparkling water
Neutral oil, for deep-frying
Cut the block of tofu into roughly 2cm-thick slabs, then pat dry with kitchen paper.
Lay a chopstick (or two strands of uncooked dried spaghetti) down each long side of the tofu, then cut down through the tofu at a slight angle, taking care not to go all the way through – the chopsticks should help prevent you from doing so.
Blitz half the nori sheet to a fine powder in a mini chopper or similar (alternatively, use seaweed flakes or seasoning), season well with salt, then sprinkle into the crevices in your tofu.
To make the batter, whisk the flour, baking powder and salt, then add the beer and combine until thick but still liquid.
Cut the remaining nori into pieces the same size as the tofu, then turn the tofu upside down, so the cuts are now on the bottom, and carefully press and stick the seaweed on to the uncut side, to mimic fish skin.
Bring a deep-fat fryer, or a deep pan no more than a third full of neutral oil, to 180C and set a wire drying rack over a plate lined with kitchen towel.
Dip the tofu into the batter, gently shake off any excess, then carefully lower it into the hot oil.
Cook, turning once, until golden brown and crisp.
Drain on the rack, season and serve piping hot.
Tofish: your favourite plant-based chippie supper, or would you come out to vote for another fish-free alternative? And where do you recommend that fries up the best vegan offering?