I’ve dipped many chicken nuggets in my life. But when I was a kid in Georgia, the special lure of McDonald’s was the PlayPlace, a plastic fantasy world of slides, tunnels and, more often than not, a ball pit. I remember the way everything in the ball pit was slicked with grease, each plastic sphere and surface sticking to my skin as I played Marco Polo with my brother. The PlayPlace was also where my mother went to meet other Korean parents with little children. I can still hear her refrain: “Excuse me, are you Korean?” Back then, there weren’t many Korean people in Georgia, especially when my parents immigrated to the United States in 1983. These outings were a salve for all of us: As my mother and her new friends gossiped over French fries and Sprite, my brother and I hopped around the playground, intermittently running to her for that chicken and that sauce.
Years later, when I ordered that BTS Meal, I asked for a couple of packets of sweet-and-sour in addition to the two special sauces. As I worked from home the next day, I stared at the leftover sauce sitting on my desk and thought: How hard could it be to recreate this for lunch? I went to the kitchen to try a homemade version that hit the same notes as that rectangular packet with the lime green label that I grew up adoring. I found that apricot preserves gave me the fruity sweetness I wanted, especially once it was stirred through with a little rice vinegar, soy sauce and onion powder. Though I can’t say this sauce was an exact replica, the flavor was flooded with a savory quality, the kind that makes you smack your lips. For more intrigue, I speckled that shiny, honey orange surface with a pinch of red-pepper flakes, inspired by the sweet-chili sauce from the BTS Meal. The pepper made it sing.
Now I needed something to dip. My mother taught me that a potato-starch coating helps you get the greatest crunch on fried food, so I dredged some tofu that was sitting in my fridge and cooked it in a pan. It’s certainly not the same thing, but it’s wonderful how the texture of pressed tofu, pan-fried until shatteringly crisp, eats a lot like a Chicken McNugget and cooks up gorgeously every time. But the real test was how the homemade sauce draped the tofu — after all, the true joy of a nugget lies in the dipping. When I dragged a piece of tofu through the shiny sauce and lifted it, the coating was thin and perfectly even. They were, as they say, made for each other.
Recipe: Crispy Tofu With Sweet-and-Sour Sauce