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January 31, 2009

Wingin' it: tofu, Buffalo-style


On a recent episode of 30 Rock, Gavin Volure, a reclusive business tycoon played by Steve Martin, describes Toronto as "just like New York, but without all the stuff."

Ouch!  Our fragile Toronto egos insist we live in a world class metropolis -- the New York of the north, you know -- but our heads say, "No way!"  That's why it's a shot to our collective inferiority complex to hear hogtown sarcastically cut down to size.

So how do we soothe our bruised egos?  Simple, we look down on our noses at our perceived inferiors, and no city makes us feel more smug than Buffalo.  The mistake on the lake.

Ask a born and bred Torontonian what comes to mind when they ponder the Queen City, and the answer is likely to be one of three things: urban poverty and crime; those ridiculous, nasal accents with their whiny vowels; and fire, fire, everywhere fire (I'm looking at you Tonawanda, Lackawanna and Cheektowaga).  Seriously, Buffalo, do your local newscasts feature stories about something other than homicide and house fires?

Buffalo is not without its charms, however, none greater than its glorious contribution to gastronomy: the buffalo wing.  And though there is some dispute as to which Buffalo landmark can properly lay claim to having invented it -- most accounts cite the Anchor Bar -- no one doubts the city of origin.

As a teen, my family used to make frequent shopping trips to Lewiston, New York, a small border town just down the road from Buffalo.   Every trip concluded with a hundred wings at the same watering hole.  I miss those wings, partially because I enjoyed those trips, but also because there are few foods I enjoy more.

Despite its bar roots, the humble chicken wing has a lot going for it.  Texturally, it offers a disproportionate level of deep fried crispiness relative to its size.  Most importantly, traditional Buffalo-style wing sauce is quite acidic, which cuts the heavy qualities of fried food with a perfect spicy zip.

As a wing traditionalist, I feel compelled to add that under no circumstances can I endorse wings smothered in barbecue sauce.  They are an affront to gastronomy.  A thick, sweet sauce is perfect for many grilled and smoked meats, but it has no place on a tender morsel of deep fried chicken.  Likewise, batter on chicken wings must be condemned as needless frippery.

Sadly, there are other emerging threats in the world of the chicken wing.  Supplies of perhaps the world's greatest bar munchie are woefully low after the bankruptcy of North America's largest wing producer, Pilgrim's Pride, while demand is way up because of Super Bowl weekend.  The situation is so dire, Stephen Colbert has been reduced to warning of the coming "Wing-ageddon" (sorry fellow Canucks, click here and fast forward to 2:48 to see the video):

That got me thinking about chicken wing alternatives.  During my wayward youth, I frittered away two long years as the world's worst vegetarian.  My virtuous experiment ended during my second year of university when a three month stint of eating nothing but Mr. Noodles no doubt contributed to a ten day hospital stay that included surgery, urethral swabs, catheters, and six-a-day Demerol injections (okay, the Demerol was actually kinda fun).  Some vegetarian.

The lingering impact of the "Time of the Great Meatlessness" is a profound love of tofu, especially when deep fried.  Done properly, deep fried tofu, much like chicken wings, has a crispy exterior and a meaty interior.  That got me thinking: Wouldn't deep fried tofu make an awesome chicken wing substitute?

So I tried it, and it does.

Now, you can deep fry and smother pretty much anything in a sauce of butter, garlic, hot sauce (I use Frank's) and salt and it'll taste pretty good, but I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed this dish.  Good tofu has a firmness that conveys a certain meatiness, but the crowning touch is crumbled blue cheese.  Though I prefer ranch dressing with my chicken wings, a sprinkling of gorgonzola adds a little funk and a necessary hint of umami to the finished product when made with tofu.

So no mercy, Buffalo!  As if it weren't bad enough that we're trying to steal your football team (albeit poorly), now we're stealing your wing sauce for our own nefarious ends.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh.  There must surely be reasons to live in the Queen City beyond chicken wings.  A recent scientific study suggests that improvements in air quality over the past few decades have led to increases in life expectancy in many North American cities, with Buffalonians (Buffaloes?) enjoying a greater benefit than almost anyone else -- up to ten extra months according to researchers.

I felt a little jealous upon hearing that news, but not for long.  After all, who wants to spend ten extra months in Buffalo?

Buffalo Tofu

In a pinch, steps 3-5 can probably be skipped (though I've not tried).  I boil my tofu before cooking it after reading a note in Sichuan Cookery, by Fuchsia Dunlop, that this step removes any lingering flavour of the coagulant used to make it.  The time in a low oven is done merely to dry out the tofu before frying. It can probably be replaced by slicing the tofu and leaving it to rest for a few hours or even overnight, uncovered, in the fridge, or by pressing the tofu to remove as much moisture as possible.

300g firm tofu
1L vegetable oil
30g blue cheese (Gorgonzola)

Half recipe, Alton Brown's buffalo wing sauce

1. Preheat oven to 80C (175F).
2. Thoroughly rinse the tofu and slice into rectangles 1cm (0.4") thick and approximately 3.5cm long x 3.5cm thick (1.5" x 1.5").
3. In a large wok, bring 1 litre of water to a boil, add the tofu slices, and simmer for 5 minutes.
4. Remove tofu from the water and drain on paper towel.
5. Place the tofu slices on a rack atop a cookie sheet and let dry out in the oven for 30 minutes, flipping the tofu after 15 minutes.
6. Remove from the oven and store, refrigerated, in an airtight container until ready to cook.
7. In a large wok, heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat until it reaches 190C (375F).  Add the tofu and increase the heat to high.  Maintain the temperature of the oil as close to
190C (375F) as possible, adjusting the heat as necessary.  Fry the tofu, flipping occasionally, until golden brown and slightly puffy, approximately six minutes.
8. While heating the vegetable oil, prepare the buffalo wing sauce and set aside in a large bowl.
9. Drain the tofu briefly on a double layer of paper towel, add to the bowl of wing sauce, stir to combine.  Crumble the blue cheese on top of the sauced tofu.  Serve immediately.


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I think this treads the fine line between genius and madness. I find myself strangely compelled to call on some vegetarian friends to help me test this out.

Michael Natkin

For the self-proclaimed world's worst vegetarian, you definitely have a keen understanding of tofu! You are absolutely right that the key to good tofu-frying is removing moisture, at least from the surface, so that it can get properly crispy. I haven't tried the oven-drying but that sounds pretty good. Not so sure about the boiling to remove the coagulant flavor, never had a problem there.

Alexa Wing

Welcome back, and thank you for this new recipe, which I will try with pleasure.


Ha! Thoroughly enjoyed this post, as always. I just wish there were more of them!


Hey you forgot to mention that other delicacy Western New Yorkers covet, Beef on Weck.

And if not for WNEB Buffalo/Toronto, we would not have all those decent cooking shows they air on Saturdays. Way better content than the Food Network

Or Ted Darling making fun of our Maple Leafs in the 70's and 80's.


You can avoid the messy frying business if you buy the prefried tofu that's sold in asian grocery stores. It doesn't have the same fresh-out-of-the-frier crispiness as the homemade stuff, although a little time in the oven can help crisp it up. However, it tastes great and can save a lot of pain and time.

Dick Black

Thanks for the linguistics rundown.

I now know they have a clinical term for this condition.

Iron Chef Mike Symon suffers from it.


I just bought the ingredients to try this out--it looks so delicious.


This recipe is channeling 臭豆腐 (chou dofu, stinky tofu) with the blue cheese and hot sauce. Looks great!


I love 30 rock. Awesome.

I like your recipe too, really anything with Franks is great but ditching all that greasy chicken skin couldn't hurt either.

Dawn Smith

sounds delicious...i just ordered ingredients from gonna make it soon.


I freeze my extra firm tofu overnight and let it thaw on the counter during the day. You can squeeze the water out by hand. Totally transforms the structure and makes pretty sublime fried tofu.



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tofu is good. too bad it's not particularly good for you, especially men. contains a lot of estrogen-like hormones that tend to wreak havoc on the human body. suppose you could make the same argument about animal meat, but it's something to think about before chomping down on soy products.

proud buffalonian

this recipe is great but your buffalo bashing is lame. Have you ever been to buffalo, the city of good neighbors? Prolly not. The people here are warm and gracious despite the constant ridicule from our snooty neighbors from the north.

Yvonne B.

This sounds like absolute genius. I've had buffalo sauce in my basement for a while, but with my vegetarian family and friends, i never really have the chance to make buffalo wings... which is the only thing keeping me from vegetarianism myself. I think I am gonna try this... but maybe without the blue cheese.


This is a very interesting article. It does not matter who came up with it if, it is good.


There's a place in NYC called Kate's Joint that's been making killer vegan buffalo wings for years. I've never figured out how they do the tofu so well-- maybe the baking part is the secret ingredient.

@John: same old, same old. The Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, and all sorts of others have been eating soy for ages. Get real.

Carlo/Carlo At Your Service Productions

I am sooooo glad I found this post, I mean it. I've been eating raw, adding a little bit of cheese to my diet for protein. But of course, this won't do. I want to maintain my health by eating vegetarian-style.

Two things I love(d): Frank's RedHot sauce and chicken wings. So okay, I won't be eating any animal flesh, thankgoodness! And now that you've shared your recipe for buffalo tofu, I'm going to try it!
I'm excited by the possibility of how good it will taste. So I'll try to remember to get back here to report how it turned out.

Thank you. If I knew you in life-life, I'd give you a hug!

Plumber Seattle

I tried this last night with some kickin spicy bbq sauce, it took like 5 minutes to make- but I wash H ad breaded them or given them more flavor. Either way I turned them into bbq tofu tacos with some fresh flour tortillas, yum!

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