Kung POW! Tofu (A Meditation on Spicy Food)

Two tablespoons of chili garlic sauce for just over two servings of food did, I admit, seem like a lot. But chili garlic sauce (along with roasted peanuts) is a major flavoring in kung pao, according to my Chinese cookbook. I scooped out one tablespoon of the fiery red paste and plunked it into the wok. I hesitated a moment and repeated, and then quickly turned on the exhaust fan.  It sure did it look beautiful, shimmering red flecks mingling with the different greens of the celery and scallion, the tan tofu, and the smooth red flesh of the bell peppers.

Wayne took a bite first and started coughing. I thought he was going to eat a few mouthfuls and make himself a pb & j, but he soldiered on through his entire plate, not speaking much except to say it was good. I polished off a normal serving, though I’ll also acknowledge that it really didn’t need to be quite that hot.

I remember reading in a psychology textbook about a correlation between thrill seeking and enjoyment of spicy foods. Or was it outgoing interpersonal behavior and spicy foods? I’ve never been able to find the reference again, but it makes sense to me that people who are sensation seekers–socially or through adventures–would gravitate towards extra sensation in their foods as well. Beyond taste, we crave a burn.

Another study (also remembered imperfectly from my undergraduate days) found that chimps enjoyed hot-pepper laced food after watching a parent savor it, but found it distasteful when presented by the experimenter. So perhaps my attraction to hot food is my dad’s fault, having watched him sweat delightedly over his meals my entire childhood.

Wherever it comes from, the desire for hot foods is a peculiar drive. Certain foods, I feel, should not be spicy. Like eggs. Perhaps because spicy foods don’t sit well for me in the morning. But other foods are disappointing without enough spice. Red sauces in Italian cooking, for instance, or anything in Indian cuisine. But I’ve noticed that everyone seems to have a particular food spiciness range, like a temperature comfort range. For me the scale runs from bland to inedible, with variations on degree of pleasure in between.

On one end, a food that I feel should be spicy falls dull on my tongue if it isn’t sufficiently hot, while a food like, say, miso soup, never disappoints me with its lack of heat. The more spice, of course, the more challenge to eat. I might enjoy the hottest food on a certain menu for a bite, but I wouldn’t be able to eat an entire dish of it. And sometimes I think a dish is just the right level of spicy, but find I can only eat half of my usual dinner portion.

Which brings me to a kind of food machismo I occasionally find myself guilty of: ordering or continuing to eat something that’s way too spicy to enjoy. Or going into a hot sauce store and sampling my way up to chemical burn hot. That’s a drive to show off my imperviousness to pain, I guess. What’s weirder, perhaps, is the actual enjoyment of the pain in the midst of the pleasure of eating. Or, come to think of it, maybe that’s not so peculiar at all.

Kung Pao Tofu

(Makes two large servings)

  • 1/2 box extra firm tofu, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • soy sauce–just enough to very lightly coat the tofu
  • pinch white pepper
  • 1/2 veggie broth
  • 1 TBS cornstarch or arrow root
  • 1 tsp sugar or agave nectar
  • peanut oil for cooking
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 red bell pepper, cut into smallish squares
  • 3-4 ribs celery, cut into thick moons
  • 4 green onions, with tops, cut on the diagonal
  • 1-2 TBS chili garlic sauce (2 is really quite hot, but suit yourself!)
  • 3/4 cup roasted, salted peanuts
  1. Lightly coat the tofu cubes with soy sauce and sprinkle the white pepper atop. Set aside
  2. Mix the sugar or agave nectar into the veggie broth and then stir in the cornstarch or arrow root. Set aside
  3. Heat the oil in your wok or stir fry pan. Add the garlic and cook very quickly, until fragrant and just beginning to brown.
  4. Add the peppers, celery, and green onions. Cook until the veggies just begin to soften and then add the tofu.
  5. Spoon in the chili garlic sauce and continue stirring until the tofu is heated through.
  6. With the heat still on, add the veggie broth mixture and keep stirring until the now-thickened liquid is well distributed. Add the peanuts, stirring to coat and then turn off the heat. Serve over rice.

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