Tofu in its unadulterated state is often wet, white, bland and, for some, unexciting. But once you get to know it, tofu has a lot of redeeming qualities: it’s versatile, it soaks up flavour, it’s healthy, it comes in many shapes and sizes, and, if you’re not already a convert, I hope that the list below will make you want a little more tofu in your life.
Pan-fried firm tofu
When you want crispy, golden, chewy morsels of tofu to add to a stir-fry, salad or wrap there are a few things you’ll need to do: start by buying a block of firm tofu. The kind you need is available at all major supermarkets and will either say firm or hard. Tofu is usually packed in water, so you’ll want to drain and rinse it. You can – but it’s not essential – pat the tofu dry on a paper towel before use.
Cut the tofu into 1cm cubes, preheat a large frying pan over medium and then add a little cooking oil. The trick is to make sure that your pan is large enough to accommodate all your tofu with gaps in between. Not only does it make it easier to flip, it prevents moisture from gathering around the tofu, which leads to soppy stewed tofu, instead of golden crispy tofu. Aim to get at least two sides of each piece nice and golden through careful turning, then after that you should be able to stir-fry them without everything breaking apart too much. Remove from the pan, cook the rest of your meal, then add the tofu back in towards the end to warm through.
The stir-fry above is a hoisin, mint and green bean udon noodle dish based on one found here on 101 Cookbooks.
Scrambled firm tofu
Scrambled tofu is a must-know for budding vegetarians and vegans. Start with a block of firm tofu (drained and rinsed) and squeeze it through your fingers into a bowl until it vaguely resembles scrambled egg. Add approximately ½ teaspoon of black salt, a tablespoon of yeast flakes, ½ teaspoon turmeric, chilli flakes, sliced spring onions, a minced garlic clove and pepper to taste. Stir with a fork roughly and fry in a little oil until vibrantly yellow and well cooked. You may want to add soy sauce, but with the salt and the yeast flakes, it can get quite salty, so make sure you’re using plenty of tofu if you increase other quantities. Add spinach leaves, sliced mushrooms and fresh parsley or coriander, if desired.
Tofu puffs are deep-fried chunks of tofu with a chewy outside and soft, air-filled centre (hence, puff). They’re ideal for including in saucy meals, such as Thai curries or Asian soups with noodles and greens. Cafe Hanoi in Britomart, Auckland serves them stuffed with chilli and lemon grass and they’re fantastic! When you buy them in a packet (available in most Asian supermarkets), you’ll want to rinse them before using, because they’re usually slightly oily. We used them in a red Thai curry, pictured below.
Oven-baked firm tofu
To bite into a triangle of baked tofu in a sweet, tangy sauce is probably one of the main reasons I was put on this planet. There’s something about the baking process that turns this mono-textured little protein into something chewy and golden on the outside, yet soft and sumptuous on the inside. The recipe pictured above is zesty orange mojo baked tofu, which features in Terry Hope Romero’s book Viva Vegan! and we’ve served it on top of mashed kumara, with sautéed beans.
The recipe is deceptively straight forward (despite requiring several ingredients). Preheat the oven to 200°C; cut a block (about 220g) of tofu in half widthways, and then into about 16 triangles. (This is about half the tofu the recipes calls for, but I think it makes them turn out extra delicious!) Put the tofu into an oven dish with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 of soy sauce. Mix until the tofu is well coated, bake for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, combine zest of 1 orange, ½ cup fresh orange juice, 2 tablespoons lime juice, 4 minced or very finely sliced garlic cloves, 1 teaspoon dried oregano, ½ teaspoon ground cumin, salt and pepper to taste. Pour this over the tofu and bake for 30 minutes (or longer if needed to reduce the sauce).
Silken tofu is also called soft tofu because it is just that: very, very soft and best used in dressings, mousses and creamy tart fillings. The slaw above is based on one from the My Darling Lemon Thyme cookbook: very finely sliced red and white cabbage, finely sliced kale or cavolo nero and toasted sesame seeds. I prefer a creamy style dressing with coleslaw, so I made a few small changes to the dressing in the cookbook (makes enough to use on two very large salads): Blend 1 block of silken/soft tofu (around 220g), 3 tablespoons of white miso, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard or wasabi (for a kick), 1 tablespoon agave or honey, ⅓ cup apple cider vinegar and 1 teaspoon sesame oil.
Marinated pressed tofu
Marinated pressed tofu is handy as a cooking shortcut. It’s already flavoured (but can be fried with a little hoisin sauce, if desired) and it has a pleasant firm texture. Add it to Asian style vermicelli noodle salads, quick stir-fries like this Korean Japchae (pictured below), or finely dice it and use it as part of a dumpling or won ton filling. (Try it instead of seitan for these dumplings).
Crispy fried firm tofu
Rolling large pieces of firm tofu in a mixture of tapioca flour and cornflour before shallow frying gives them a delicious crunchy texture on the outside. I really enjoy this as a burger filling with a vegan mayonnaise, or served on top of a noodle soup, like the Crispy Tofu with Soba Noodle Broth pictured above.
Although tempeh is clearly not tofu, I thought I’d introduce it here because it is another fabulous addition to vegan or vegetarian cooking. This Indonesian product is also made from soybeans, but they are fermented until they firm a ‘cake’. Chop tempeh (available in most supermarket fridges) into slices to stir-fry in a well-flavoured glaze (such as this orange one pictured from 101 Cookbooks) or marinate it in a combination of olive oil, soy sauce and either smoked paprika or liquid smoke and then bake or fry to use as tempeh ‘bacon’ in a burger. I’ve heard some people describe tempeh as tasting bitter, I think this may vary from brand to brand; nevertheless, steaming the block for a couple of minutes before use apparently helps.
When it comes to tofu and tempeh, this post barely scratches the surface (so keep an eye out for a part two, someday). But these are some of our favourite ways to eat them, and hopefully that shows what a useful and mouthwatering addition they are to any menu!