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General Tso's Tofu #CooktheBooks #FoodieReads

Deb of Kahakai Kitchen is hosting our bi-monthly reading group Cook the Books. And, if you'd like to join the fun, the posts aren't due till the end of January, so you still have time.

In October, we received the next four selections. The December-January pick is Eat Joy: Stories & Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers edited by Natalie Eve Garrett*. I must have ordered it (on my Kindle) as soon as I saw the list. Then, when I clicked back to the group site last week, I made a note of the books, and ordered this one - again! - in a hard copy. Whoops!

So, I read it on my Kindle this past weekend and wrapped up the book as Christmas gift for a friend.

On the Page

December is a good time to read a collection of short stories or essays. With the mayhem of the season, it's nice to be able to digest something standalone instead of having to keep track of a story over a period of days punctuated by not picking up a book at all! This one was a delight.

Garrett wrote, "When I embarked on this collection, I hoped to create a feast of stories about making mistakes, summoning strength, getting lost and trying to find a way back. I hungered for compassionate stories that reveled in taste, whether savory, bitter, or sweet—stories that used food as a conduit for unearthing memories." She does exactly that; Eat Joy is part memoir, part cookbook and all of it is served with a side of inspiration and joy...and maybe a few tears mixed in there.

Even if the writers' experiences and emotional upheavals aren't your personal experiences upheavals - think immigration, divorce, death of a parent and more - this book is rife with good food and good writing. 

Back in 2016 I read The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber and was inspired to make Ahwa Beida (White Coffee), so I was excited to see "Leaves" included. It's a story in which Abu-Jaber discusses the loss of home. "[My aunt lost] not only her childhood house, but the things that made it home—all the feasts and lunches, her pistachio cookies, chicken msukken, and smoked bulgur and tabbouleh salad, dishes handed down from her mother’s grandmother, extending into the roots of the olive orchards and date palms." And I had no idea that za'atar was anything but a spice blend until this year, when a farmer friend of mine gave me some dried za'atar. Abu-Jaber writes, "But wild za’atar is said to be the miraculous herb that fed the Palestinians, an ingredient at the heart of their food and identity for ages. There are no substitutes."

In "The Taste of Consolation" by Claire Messud the reader gets a heart-wrenching look at the cultural expectations for her mother's generation who was born in 1933 - get married and bear children, oh, and cook for your husband. "Although my mother dreamed of being a lawyer, some part of her must have wanted the trappings of a conventional life. ...She lived up admirably to the midcentury feminine ideal.... She amassed a collection of over two hundred cookbooks, experimented widely, and as my French father expected, prepared us three-course suppers every night. An example: melon with prosciutto, then lamb kidneys in a white wine cream sauce served over rice, with a green salad (a little endive to add texture, and a tarragon vinaigrette, with perhaps a touch of homemade mayonnaise to thicken it); and mixed berries for dessert. Or another: a dressed salad of tiny shrimp and avocado, followed by prune-stuffed pork tenderloin, served with buttered egg noodles and thin-sliced sautéed zucchini topped with parmesan; followed by zabaglione, that airy confection of egg yolks, marsala wine, and sugar, whisked at length over a double boiler, that floats upon the tongue and burns in the throat."

Often times cooking is simultaneously challenging and healing. Rakesh Saytal must agree because his mantra was something akin to banishing fear through baking. "But those of us who love baking love it for the reason that others shy away from it: the praxis of it, the dexterity of movement and imagination of its construction and the boundaries that can be teased out and pushed."

Beth (Bich Minh) Nguyen embraced cooking as a way to adapt to her new life, when describing her spaghetti sauce, "Over the years, I learned to do better.... I learned about where the ingredients came from. The order of things. How to blanch and simmer. Learning to cook better was like learning to be better. What I have here is my current version of spaghetti. It’s not really a recipe but more a series of suggestions, open to as much complication or simplicity as one likes. While it can be increased and shared and adapted in all kinds of ways, it really makes a perfect solo meal – the kind of solo that is chosen and deliberate."

This book definitely made me hungry. I immediately made Mira Jacob’s Chai and found myself nodding through Kristen Iskandrian’s Quick Grief Pickles. But I will be flipping back through this anthology for inspiration soon.

On the Plate

However, for this event, it was Lev Grossman's passage about General Tso's Tofu that actually sent me into the kitchen. Grossman is living in his divorce apartment and living on take-out.

"In my old life I liked to cook most of my meals, but after I got divorced I ordered takeout most nights. On two out of three of those nights what I ordered was General Tso’s tofu. Why General Tso’s tofu? Partly because it was there: they had it at the veggie storefront Chinese joint a few doors down, which for some reason had a life-size plaster Egyptian sarcophagus outside it, and which was staffed by young, beautiful, unsmiling Chinese women who spoke no English. Partly because it had tofu in it, so I could tell myself it was basically healthy. (It wasn’t. It’s possible, with strenuous effort and painful compromises, to make a low-calorie, low-sodium General Tso’s tofu, but this wasn’t that.) But mostly I ordered it because I loved it and it made me feel good. It was easy to get depressed in the divorce apartment. I was alone. I missed my daughter. I was mourning a complicated eleven-year series of major personal mistakes. I was newly poor and my apartment sucked. And General Tso’s tofu, when made properly, is stunningly delicious. There isn’t much that’s authentically Chinese about General Tso’s tofu. There was a real General Tso, who had a very successful career suppressing a lot of internal revolts in China and died in 1885. (According to Wikipedia he had a long and happy marriage. Good for him.) But he never tasted the tofu that bears his name. General Tso’s chicken was invented in New York in the 1970s and the tofu version came sometime after that. It doesn’t exist in China. But this inauthenticity withers into irrelevance in the face of General Tso’s greatness as a dish."

Grossman continues, "The essence of General Tso’s Anything is the sauce: sweet, sour, spicy, salty, unabashedly gluey, studded with nuclear red chilies. Its color is a radiant translucent orange that reminds one of rubies and molten iron. The hot tofu, lightly coated in a form-fitting cornstarch batter, cracks open to reveal a silky slippery interior not unlike a savory toasted marshmallow. Interleave it with some hastily blanched broccoli to add texture and vegetal credibility and you have a perfect one-dish meal. To me in my divorce apartment General Tso’s tofu was like an edible antidepressant."

This isn't Grossman's recipe or process, it's more of a liberal adaptation. He doesn't mention pressing the tofu, but I like to do that. I usually express about 1/2 cup of liquid before I cut my tofu into cubes.

Ingredients serves 4
  • 3 Tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons wine (I used some leftover wine from Thanksgiving)
  • 2 Tablespoons vinegar (I used a rice vinegar)
  • 1 Tablespoon toasted sesame oil plus more for frying the tofu
  • 1/2 cup of chicken stock
  • 2 Tablespoons organic granulated sugar
  • 1 pound tofu (I used firm), pressed to expel extra liquid
  • 2 Tablespoons corn starch, divided
  • 1 pound tofu
  • 3 to 4 cloves garlic, peeled and pressed
  • 1/2 cup sliced onions
  • 1" knob fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • handful of dried red chiles
  • vegetables (he mentions broccoli, I used green beans, green cabbage, and green bell peppers)
  • Also needed: steamed rice for serving


Place the block of tofu in a plate and compress it something heavy. I usually use a bowl with some potatoes in it! Leave it for at least 10 minutes. Discard the liquid and cut into cubes. Place the tofu cubes in a bowl and toss with 1 Tablespoon corn starch.

Whisk together the soy sauce, wine, vinegar, sesame oil, chicken stock, and sugar. Stir in the onions, garlic, ginger, and red chiles. Let soak for at least 10 minutes. Add the entire mixture to a large skillet and cook until the onions and peppers are softened, approximately 6 to 8 minutes. Add in the veggies and cook until just wilted.

In the meantime, fry the tofu. Heat a skillet over high heat, reduce the heat to medium and add enough sesame oil to coat the bottom. Place the tofu cubes in a single layer on the pan and fry until each side takes on a nice golden glow. Set aside.

Spoon some of the cooking liquid from the vegetable pot and whisk it together with another tablespoon of corn starch. Once you have a smooth slurry, stir that back into the veggies and turn the heat up to medium. The sauce will thicken fairly quickly.

Once the sauce is thickened to your desired consistency, toss in the fried tofu cubes. Serve hot with a scoop of steamed rice on the side.

Over dinner I read the passages about my inspiration. The family commented: we were wondering why you were frying things. And, my favorite feedback, "This tastes like it could have come from a Chinese restaurant!" I'll take it.

*I am part of the affiliate program on, which gives me a small percentage of sales if you buy a book through my link or my shop. It doesn't cost you anything more. Here's this bookIf you are uncomfortable with this, feel free to go directly to and search for the item of your choice.
Click to see what everyone else in Foodie Reads read in December 2020: here.


  1. That looks delicious! I might just have to make it myself. ;-) I am so glad you enjoyed the book. I thought it would be good to dip in and out over the holidays. Thanks for joining in!

  2. I completely agree with you that Eat Joy is a wonderful collection! I liked some of the same particular essays you did -- blogged here:

    be well...mae

  3. I can see why you were inspired by that paragraph. It made my stomach growl. I haven't started this book yet but now I can't wait.

  4. I've leafed through it but need to dive in. It may be a little overwhelming to choose something. I like the looks of this!

  5. I couldn't resist General Tso either, and made it soon after reading the divorce apartment story. You added a good selection of veggies to the dish. I also stir fried some broccoli to add in with the onions, etc., rather than serving it on the side.

  6. I love Chinese food whether made by me or takeout. Sometimes you just have to bail and stop on the way home for a treat. I'm cooking Chinese tonite so will incorporate some of these ideas. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I like that you read from the book to complement the dinner. Nice choice of recipe: your enthusiasm is contagious. Like Deb, I may follow your lead soon :)

  8. This is yummy! Like how you crisped the tofu! This is a good choice from the book. I too wanted to make this.


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