Taking Tofu Back to Its Roots
Tofu is a distinctly Asian ingredient that has become a global citizen — adaptable, receptive, and all-purpose for all cuisines. But sometimes, it’s nice to bring it back home.
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From tofu scrambles for brunch, to silken tofu in smoothies for an on-the-go weekday breakfast and even tempeh in fajitas, tofu has come a long way from its “boring,” “tastes like cardboard” debut in the United States. In the decades since it first hit the American mainstream in the 1960s, this high-protein, plant-based ingredient has grown, along with the vegetarian and vegan movement, in both popularity and ingenuity.
Tofu’s versatility and adaptability have made it a favorite among many global cuisines. Firm tofu is a veritable sponge for flavors, soaking up the characteristics of whatever it’s marinated or cooked in. Extra-firm tofu has the same virtues, but holds its shape even more stubbornly, able to withstand the abuse of high temperatures and heavy handling. Meanwhile, medium tofu holds up well in soups and simmers, keeping its shape up until that satisfying moment that you break through it to release its slight sweetness. And silken tofu is a cooking wonder as it purees smoothly into desserts, shakes, salad dressings, and sauces.
Today, searching for a tofu recipe can take you all around the world. No longer relegated to the sidelines as a strictly “ethnic” or Asian ingredient, its utility has made believers of cooks from all backgrounds.
However, with tofu’s 2,000-year history, its roots are deep and not to be forgotten. Long before it arrived in the Western world, tofu was a staple in China, where it was invented, as well as in Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and other regions with their own distinctive culinary traditions. And no matter how flexibly and masterfully tofu is used, there is no substitute for thousands of years of experience.
So let’s take it home. To honor tofu’s pan-Asian heritage, here are 17 Asian tofu recipes that range from new-wave — for those just starting to dip a toe into tofu waters — to old-school that go far beyond teriyaki.
Looking for a fun global vegan appetizer? Then stick a toothpick in this easy tofu recipe, because you’re done! When baked or fried, tofu is a fun study in textures — firm and crispy on the outside, and creamy within. Make sure to follow the tips for this baked tofu recipe on how to preserve that outer shell, even if you go grain-free. Another tip? Make extra of the southeast Asian-inspired peanut dipping sauce, and use it on grilled meats or cold noodles.
Refreshing is the theme, but hoisin sauce and tamari give this protein-packed, veggie-forward main the umami it needs to feel like an entree. Crumbled tempeh — an Indonesian tofu-related soy product made from fermented soy beans, popular as a meat substitute — makes it hearty. If you don’t have tamari, soy sauce will do, but be sure to use good-quality hoisin like Koon Chun or Lee Kum Kee brands, available online and at Asian markets. The flavor is more concentrated and less sweet than grocery store brands.
If you thought tofu didn’t have a role to play in pasta salad, this tofu dish will set you straight. The dried Chinese egg noodle nests — chewier and obviously eggier than Italian-style — and tahini and peanut sauce give this dish satiating power even while the cucumber, raw bell pepper, and cilantro provide a refreshing counterbalance.
This versatile recipe is a great base for stir-fries, incorporating hoisin sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, and cornstarch (which the recipe creator calls cornflour). To me, it’s essential reading for Asian Flavors 102 — just a step above the 101 that is soy sauce and ready-made teriyaki! Don’t be daunted by the list of ingredients here. Several are actually repeats since the recipe breaks it down into three parts: the tofu coating, the sauce, and the actual stir-fry components. From here, you can riff off the broccoli florets with any veggies you like.
Yes, I did just call pre-made teriyaki sauce elementary. But you need a good foundation to build on, and it does exactly that for this fusion recipe that also incorporates balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, and miso paste. Seek out the narrow, bright purple Japanese eggplant for this if you can.
Ready to get a little spicy? Then try this recipe, which adds sambal oelek to a honey-sweetened soy and rice vinegar mix. This Indonesian chili garlic paste is almost as available as sriracha at supermarkets (it’s usually right there in a little plastic jar next to those now iconic squeeze bottles). One tablespoon is as hot as a single jalapeño, so be careful or go wild with that in mind!
Only peripherally Asian with its use of sesame seeds, soy sauce, and scallions, this dish turns the heat up a bit from the last recipe with the use of plenty of coarse black pepper and two whole jalapeños. Ten cloves garlic and lots of ginger make it a flavor bomb for which a batch of baked tofu is a fantastic blank canvas. A generous addition of butter gives the dish a familiar western richness, as this ingredient isn’t common to Asian cuisines.
Thai red curry — known as panang, if it’s sweet and has peanuts — is, in a word, exciting. It’s bold in flavor and appearance, and rich with complexity even while the presence of coconut softens the heat. This is a sauce meant to be sopped … which makes absorbent tofu the perfect vehicle. It keeps its shape and doesn’t get soggy while happily taking on the taste of the curry. Now, by no means am I suggesting you bypass rice as a side dish — fragrant jasmine is a common choice — I’m just pointing out that if you want to cut down on carbs, this dish will be plenty satisfying should you choose to concentrate on the tofu. You’ll need Thai red curry paste in addition to a little sambal olek.
Well, we certainly can’t get into Asian recipes and ignore the subcontinent, right? One of my personal favorite curries gets an untraditional vegetarian treatment with the use of innocuous tofu, which allows the flavor of the cashews and coconut to take center stage. Korma sauce isn’t the only one that can withstand a swap-out. Tofu works for other Indian curries, too, like Palak Paneer, where you can swap it in for the fresh cheese (paneer). Make sure to give the tofu enough time to simmer in the sauce and take on the curry’s flavor to get the most impact out of every bite.
If “authentically Asian” is what you were looking for, here’s where we start to get into it. Think of this recipe as an inverted dumpling, where the neutral vehicle is wrapped in the stronger flavors, bound by the egg. Chinese chives are one of my favorite aromatic vegetables; you may recognize them from the hand-made pork dumplings at take-out restaurants or as an ingredient in a variety of translucent dumplings you may see floating around dim sum tea rooms. A member of the allium family, Chinese chives have a distinctive scent — if you’ve smelled them once, you’ll recognize it again and again. But taste them once, and that stink will fill you with joyous anticipation. Look for Chinese chives in Asian groceries, without the buds. If they aren’t available to you, you can make do with garlic scapes, garlic chives, green onions, or leeks. They won’t impart the same intensity of flavor, but they’ll do in a pinch!
Speaking of vegetables with strong characteristics, cooked celery is actually very common to Chinese cuisine, providing a wealth of new options outside of ants on a log, tuna salad, or conveyors of blue cheese dressing. Smoked tofu adds an earthiness to the sharpness of celery, and you can buy it at Asian specialty stores or natural foods store, or try to smoke it yourself if you’re feeling ambitious! You could also try the recipe with regular baked, seasoned, or fried firm tofu, but with an easy preparation and short ingredient list, why not go for the real deal?
Now we’re getting into the fun stuff! Did you know that when soy milk is boiled, a layer develops, similar to that of dairy milk? However, the difference with tofu skin is that it can be skimmed off, bunched up, dried, then rehydrated for chewy delayed satisfaction. In fact, this is a common food source in many parts of Asia like China, Korea, and Japan … but you can get it at any Asian market, or even online as bean curd sheets or sticks. This recipe is a classic Chinese use of this tofu-related byproduct, filled with pork and mushrooms and not dissimilar in principle to a stuffed cabbage roll. When I go out for dim sum, I love the version which adds wood ear mushrooms and bamboo shoots to the mix to absorb some of the thick, fragrant sauce.
This vegetarian tofu recipe is tofu inception: tofu rolled in tofu skin. It incorporates bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, and carrots into the filling, which you wrap inside the tofu skins and then indulgently deep fry until crispy and golden brown. For best flavor, use dehydrated Chinese black mushrooms, but let them get a head start over your tofu skins. They’ll take longer to soak through since they’re much denser. Save the mushroom liquid for added umami oomph to whatever you saute to go along with these rolls!
My grandmother used to love growing what we call oong tsai in Fuzhouhua (Mandarin for “Fuzhou dialect"), those hollow-stemmed greens which grow quickly but require harvesting early, as they only stay tender for a short period of time. If you seek these out at an Asian market, look for labels that may say water spinach, morning glory, or kangkong — and don’t be dismayed if it says swamp cabbage! These tender shoots are sauteed as lightly as spinach, and do well with strong flavors like fermented bean curd. Fermentation is yet another traditional treatment of ever-adaptable tofu, and in this form, it’s cut into pieces and jarred with a brine of some combination of salt, vinegar, rice wine, and oil. Fermented bean curd falls apart easily — we typically just dip our chopsticks into the soft tofu cubes to flavor each bite of rice porridge. But in this recipe, the bean curd is reduced to a paste that melts down and penetrates the vegetables for a taste of Chinese country cooking in every bite.
So far, we’ve covered uses for tempeh, extra-firm and firm tofu, and tofu skin. But for soup, medium tofu is popular for its more forgiving texture, making it less chewy in a light broth while not falling apart as soft tofu does. (And medium is what I’d go for in this recipe, despite it calling for firm.) The kale spin-off on traditional miso soup is super-simple, super-satisfying, and will fill you up without weighing you down. Plus, prep time is minimal and it takes only 30 minutes total time, making this an easy weeknight recipe.
Now we enter silken tofu recipe territory with this Korean-inspired soup, where kimchi takes the spotlight with its best friend gochujang. Kimchi, of course, is fermented cabbage, iconic to Korea’s food culture, and unmistakable for its pungent smell and vibrant red hues. Gouchujang is a slightly sweet red pepper paste that’s also important to Korean cooking. In this dish, the soft tofu fades into a supporting role, echoing in texture the softly cooked egg that gets cracked atop the soup.
And finally, we can’t end any Asian tofu recipe round-up without a mention of one of its most viral, internet-famous renditions: Mapo Tofu. This Sichuan classic is essentially chunks of tofu, meat, and vegetables suspended in an oil-based sauce, bright red with chili paste and chili powder and complemented with fermented black beans, ginger, and garlic. There are countless variations on the dish; this one calls for silken tofu for a more custard-like mouthfeel, but if you want more bite, you can swap in the tofu texture of your choice.
More ideas for cooking tofu
First time cooking tofu? On Yummly you’ll find thousands of new recipes for tofu, including ideas for marinating and pan-frying, easy tofu browned in a nonstick skillet, air fryer tofu, and Chinese food favorites like tofu in garlic sauce with fresh ginger and General Tso’s Tofu. Explore more ideas in the following articles.