Popcorn “chicken” tofu

First and foremost, I hope everyone’s staying safe and healthy! Since I am lucky enough to be able to shelter in place at home, I’ve also craved all of my favorite things that I usually go out to get – and often with friends or my sister. And one of them is popcorn chicken – which always goes great with boba. 

Years ago, my sister and I attempted to make popcorn chicken and it didn’t turn out so well. We had all of the right ingredients, but it didn’t crisp up well or have enough flavor. We put it on the back burner, but since we’re in quarantine, this is prime time for food experiments. We also cleaned out the pantry and found a key ingredient for this snack, so we decided to attempt again. Also, pictures are not up to their usual standard because these were made as an experiment so I took quick photos with my iPhone.

Only, we didn’t have enough chicken. 

But.. we had a lot of tofu. 


After some research, we combined the process of preparing the tofu to fry and use like chicken from Sauce Stache on YouTube and the actual popcorn chicken recipe from Garden Time homemade cuisine, and it produced amazing results! It had the right interior texture (it really felt like pieces of chicken!), taste, and crispiness.

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Notes before beginning: 

  • The tofu needs to freeze and thaw more than once, so this takes ~48 hours – plan ahead if you want to make this! 
  • I will say that the starch may be hard to find during this time, but the rest of the ingredients should be pretty accessible (though you never know what you can find in the grocery stores these days). 
  • While this uses tofu, it does cook in a chicken broth, but simply swap it out for a vegetable substitute to make this fully vegetarian; it’ll be vegan too!

Popcorn “Chicken” Tofu

INGREDIENTS

Tofu prep 

  • 1 package firm tofu (we used what we had on hand, so use whichever tofu you can find!)
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 chicken bouillon cube (replace with a veggie one to make it fully vegetarian and vegan)

Popcorn tofu marinade

  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • ½ teaspoon white pepper
  • ⅓ teaspoon salt
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced 

Popcorn tofu flour batter

  • ⅓ cup all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup water
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon five spice
  • ¼ teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 package, sweet potato starch*

Popcorn tofu seasoning

  • ⅓ teaspoon five spice
  • 1 teaspoon white pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder (adjust to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional; adjust to taste)

Garnish

  • 4-6 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 5-10 basil leaves

TOFU PREP

  1. Keep the tofu in its original packaging without opening and freeze it for 24 hours.
  2. After 24 hours, take the tofu out and let it thaw. Once it feels a little soft, put it back in the freezer to freeze for another 12 hours. Since the moisture (water) in the tofu will freeze and unfreeze when it thaws, and water expands, this will create layers in the tofu to give it its chicken-like texture. 
  3. After 12 hours, take the tofu out and let it thaw completely (still in its unopened, original packing), until its a little soft again. 
  4. Open the tofu from its packaging and drain it. It will look misshapen and a little lumpy instead of its usual square and even shape. 
  5. Place the tofu on a counter with two paper towels underneath. Then, put something heavy in order to remove excess water from the tofu. You can put a couple of heavy books, a cast iron skillet, or two cutting boards. Set aside and let it drain for about 30 minutes.
  6. In the meantime, add the water and chicken bouillon cube to a pot and let it cook for about 10 minutes then let it cool for 20 minutes. 
  7. By now most, if not all, of the moisture will be drained from the tofu. Get a ziplock, put in the tofu, and pour the cooled down broth into the ziplock, just enough to cover the tofu. 
  8. Put the tofu in the fridge for 24 hours. If you don’t want to wait that long, let it sit for at least 6 hours so the tofu can get cold and absorb the chicken broth flavors.

TOFU MARINADE AND BATTER

  1. Once the tofu has absorbed some of the broth (at least 6 hours), take it out of the fridge.
  2. Squeeze as much liquid as you can out of the tofu for about 5-10 minutes. You can repeat the process of placing a heavy object over the tofu, but this time the weight doesn’t need to be as heavy as a cast iron skillet. 
  3. This is optional, but 1 package of tofu will make a lot of popcorn tofu. If you’re making this for one person, I recommend dividing the tofu into three pieces. 
  4. Get a mixing bowl or container, and break the tofu apart with your hands into random sized chunks, like you’re breaking pieces of bread apart. 
  5. Combine soy sauce, white pepper, teaspoon salt, and minced garlic cloves in a separate bowl.
  6. Pour the marinade over tofu and make sure it coats the tofu pieces. Set aside and let it marinade for 15-20 minutes. 
  7. In the meantime, combine all-purpose flour, water, salt, five spice, and baking powder. Continue to mix it until it becomes a paste. 
  8. Combine and coat the tofu with the flour batter.

TOFU SEASONING

  1. Combine five spice, white pepper, and salt, garlic powder (optional), cayenne pepper (optional). Once combined, taste it to see if it needs adjustment. I added garlic powder since I love that taste and cayenne pepper because I wanted it to be spicy but they’re both optional. I wouldn’t recommend adding additional white pepper for heat because too much of it brings this weird sulfur taste.
  2. Once it’s at your desired taste, set aside.

TOFU FRYING

  1. Use a saucepan or something with some depth since we’ll be deep frying the tofu. Add about 3 inches of oil or enough to submerge the tofu. 
  2. While the oil is heating up, pour out a cupful of the sweet potato starch into a plate or container. Coat your pieces of tofu with a coating of starch. We did experiment with using egg to bind everything, but it didn’t make much of a difference, so need for it! It actually fared better without the egg.
  3. Do this coating in batches since the battered tofu absorbs the starch pretty quickly. 
  4. Turn your stove on medium-high heat first and if you feel like the tofu is frying too quickly, reduce the heat. I recommend checking by using a test piece first.
  5. Once you feel comfortable with the heat, pour in your first batch of tofu as well as 2 peel garlic cloves. Fry until golden brown; it doesn’t need to be very dark. It should take about 10 minutes to fry. 
  6. Drain the tofu on a plate or bowl lined with at least two paper towels. 
  7. Once you’re done frying the tofu, take your basil leaves and quickly fry them in the leftover oil, for about 5-10 seconds. Make sure your basil is completely dry because it will create a big splash if there’s moisture when frying – we know from experience. 
  8. Once the tofu is completely drained of oil, toss your popcorn chicken with a spoonful of seasoning. Continue to toss it until it’s reached your desired flavor level. 
  9. Pour your popcorn tofu into a container or plate of your choice, and top with fried garlic and basil leaves to serve.
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I know it’s a long, arduous process but it’s so worth it! The freezing and unfreezing creates this really interesting texture that does look similar to meat, and it gives that same feeling in your mouth too. I definitely added more garlic and heat to the seasoning because I like it to have a little kick – which is also what I do when I order it from a boba spot. This will also last well overnight in the fridge, since we fried the entire package and had leftovers; it didn’t get soggy. 

Let me know in the comments if you try this out and/or tag @bayfood on Instagram! 

*If you can’t find sweet potato starch, which is likely during these weird times, you can try 50% tapioca powder (if you can find that lol) and 50% all-purpose flour. I’ve also read that you can substitute cornstarch, but I haven’t tested it for myself. 

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