Some people are not into tofu. You can often peg these folks within minutes of meeting them, even if the subject of tofu, or even food, does not come up. A former editor of mine named Brad Tyer was one such fellow, the kind who would sooner sneer at tofu than eat it, out of principle if not flavor, for the simple fact that tofu is the polar opposite of a bacon cheeseburger with a side of cigarette.

So when I asked Brad for some advice on the food scene in his native Houston, and he recommended a restaurant based on its tofu, I took notice. All the more worthy of note was that while Van Loc, a Vietnamese restaurant, had a diverse menu,Brad could offer no guidance whatsoever beyond one dish: the Clay Pot Tofu.

“I’m in so love with it, with mushrooms in a peppery broth, that’s all I ever order.”

There are a lot of things I thought I’d see before I saw Bradwhispering sweet nothings about tofu. I knew it was a story, and a meal, worth pursuing.

At Van Loc, my order of Clay Pot Tofu arrived boiling at my table. Black pepper was visible to the naked eye, coating the large pieces of celery, whole shitake mushrooms, and golden chunks of deep-fried tofu, which had no trouble holding their crisp within the broth.

As I took a few tiny sips of the hot peppery broth that Brad is in love with, I determined that all of the spice came from the black pepper, none from chili peppers. At first this struck me as odd, but then, Vietnam is the world’s largest producer (and exporter) of black pepper, so this hardly jeopardized its authenticity.
While the pepper was strong, the overall effect was subtle. Celery took a rare post at center stage, balanced artfully with the mushrooms in the broth. The tofu absorbed the flavor around it but held its own. It’s a solid, intriguing, and satisfying dish.

The folks at Van Loc were understandably tight-lipped about their amazing recipe, but I was determined to figure it out. After much work in the lab, testing and combining several recipes for similar dishes that I’d found online, I finally got my peppery tofu. It may not be exactly the same as the one at Van Loc, but I think it would make Brad smile. And that’s an accomplishment in any context.

Touchy-Feely-Peppery Clay Pot Tofu, for Brad

14-ounce brick of firm tofu
Safflower or grape seed oil, ideally, or another such heat-tolerant oil, enough for deep-frying
3-6 cloves of garlic, sliced
Medium onion, sliced into rings
Cup of loosely packed shitake mushrooms
Three large celery stalks, sliced lengthwise and then cut into inch-long sections
¼ cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon black pepper (or less, if you’re sensitive)
1 teaspoon white pepper (or less, if you’re sensitive)

First of all, you don’t need a clay pot in order to follow this recipe. Having prepared it in both a clay pot and metal cookware, the flavor difference isn’t noticeable. As long as the vessel holds heat, and can be delivered bubbling at the table where it can keep you warm on an autumn day, it will work. But with that being said, a clay pot is way cooler.

For two generous servings, cut the tofu into chunks that are about an inch-square and half-inch deep. In a pot or wok, heat enough oil to submerge the tofu. Deep-fry the tofu until it has a golden-brown crisp. Remove, drain, and set aside the crispy tofu chunks.

In your clay pot (or other heat holding vessel), heat a tablespoon of oil and fry the garlic. When the garlic starts to brown and you can smell it, add the onion, shitake mushrooms, and celery.

While it cooks on medium heat, mix the soy sauce, 1/4 cup water, vinegar, and sugar. Add this sauce to the clay pot or pan, followed by the black and white pepper. Stir it together and add the crispy tofu chunks, so that they are half-submerged in the saucy stir-fry. Put a lid on your clay pot or pan, and cook ten minutes on medium heat. Serve immediately by placing the still-simmering hot clay pot on a hot pad, accompanied with rice.

When I told Brad that I’d replicated his beloved tofu, his response, true to form, was “Now, can you make that with pork?”
Interestingly enough, many recipes for Clay Pot Tofu do indeed begin with browning ground pork. And being nonvegan and Vietnamese, it often contains fish sauce.

If you’re not a vegan, incidentally, do yourself a favor when preparing Clay Pot Tofu, and add some fish sauce. As good as the vegan version is, a little squirt of fish will make it better.

While my online recipe searches yielded many twists, I never found any that relied so heavily on celery and black pepper. That little move is between the folks at Van Loc, you, me and Brad.

It has been barely a year since Van Loc closed its doors, though hardly for lack of customer support. The owners decided to retire, leaving Houston 28 years worth of fragrant memories, and a digital wake of rave reviews-including a comment on the Vegan Houston blog praising Van Loc’s Clay Pot Tofu. It might be the only matter on which Brad Tyer and Vegan Houston agree.