Tofu is a staple in Asian cuisine, but did you know that it has a century-old history and can be used in a myriad of dishes? Today we’ll delve into the different types of tofu. Through cooking with tofu, we'll explore its versatile roles in Asian cuisine, and share some of my own tofu ideas from popular Asian recipes to try!
Origins and Makeup of Tofu
Tofu originated in China about 2,000 years ago, before spreading to Japan in the 8th century, and throughout Southeast Asia – with each country developing its unique, traditional ways of cooking with it.
So, what is tofu made of? The process involves curdling soy milk and water using nigari – a leftover product from the extraction process of salt from seawater. The soft texture and mild flavour of tofu are some reasons why it’s featured so often across Asian cuisines with different uses – examples include being steamed in Japanese miso soup, stir-fried as in Chinese Mapo Tofu or Pad Thai, deep-fried like the Indonesian tahu goreng, or even enjoyed on its own.
Tofu: a ‘superfood’
Rich in nutrients, high in protein and low in calories and fat, tofu has been crowned a ‘superfood’. The health benefits of tofu include lowering the risk of lifestyle- or age-related disease. As such, adding tofu to a well-balanced diet can enhance your health and overall well-being.
Tofu Types and Recipes
At Asian restaurants or grocers, you’re sure to be greeted with a diverse range of tofu, often sold in blocks encased in water within plastic packages. Ever wondered how each white, creamy block differs from the other?
There are mainly two types of tofu – silken, and non-silken (regular tofu), which come in medium-firm, firm, and extra-firm varieties.
#1 Silken tofu
Also known as Japanese tofu or soft tofu, silken tofu has a pudding-like consistency and mildly sweet flavour. Due to its high moisture content, it can fall apart easily and must be handled delicately.
Before you begin cooking with silken tofu, remember to drain the excess liquid from its packaging to avoid diluting the dish you’re cooking with. Be mindful not to press silken tofu when draining as it will crumble with pressure.
Its soft texture makes it the perfect base for desserts, sauces, or dressings! In Chinese cuisine, silken tofu can be served cold or steamed on a bed of savoury sauce. It’s also featured in the popular Sundubu Jjigae (Korean Spicy Soft Tofu Stew) in Korean cuisine.
Here’s a quick and refreshing silken tofu recipe you can whip up on hot days:
Spicy Silken Tofu (Served cold)
- Ensure the tofu is drained of excess liquid
- In a separate bowl, mix soy sauce, sesame oil, minced garlic, sugar, and chillies
- Transfer tofu onto a plate
- Pour dressing over tofu
- Garnish with chopped scallions (optional)
#2 Regular Tofu (Medium-Firm):
As mentioned, there are three types of regular tofu: medium-firm, firm and extra-firm. Although medium tofu is firmer than silken tofu due to its lower moisture content, it will still crumble under much pressure.
Drain excess liquid by placing the tofu on absorbent paper towels for about ten minutes. While tofu readily absorbs the sauces it’s cooked in, preparation is key to ensuring that all or most water has been removed to allow it to hold sauces.
Medium-firm tofu does hold up its shape fairly well and is great braised, boiled or pan-fried. It’s featured in popular Asian dishes including several of my favourite like Sichuan style Mapo Tofu or Japanese miso soup. Here’s another one of my favourite, simple Asian tofu recipes to try.
Japanese Agedashi Tofu
- Ensure tofu is drained from excess liquid
- Slice the block into about 6-8 similar-sized cubes
- Lightly coat tofu cubes with a generous layer of potato starch
- Deep-fry tofu cubes until golden brown
- In a separate bowl, mix dashi stock, soy sauce, sugar, and mirin
- Add tofu cubes to a serving bowl and pour the dressing over
- Garnish with scallions or grated daikon
#3 Firm Tofu
Denser than regular tofu, firm tofu holds up its shape very well. This means you’re free to handle it without fear of breakage, and it's perfect for stir-frying, deep-frying and even Asian hot pot.
When preparing firm tofu, drain excess water with a method called ‘pressing’. Either press the tofu between two paper towels or weigh it down with something heavy to remove moisture.
Another method is ‘salt-soaking’. Place the tofu in saltwater for about fifteen minutes, then press out any liquid from the tofu with a paper towel. This method also adds more taste to the tofu.
Firm tofu is featured in well-loved Asian dishes such as Chinese veggie or beef stir-fries and Pad Thai in Thai cuisine. I love it, try it out for yourself!
- Ensure tofu is drained from excess liquid
- Prepare the dressing by mixing soy sauce, sesame oil, and Shaoxing wine
- Coat tofu with potato starch
- Pan-fry tofu over medium heat with minced ginger and garlic, until both sides are golden brown
- Add dressing to the pan and serve over rice
With its very firm texture, extra-firm tofu makes it suitable for slicing and frying. It can also be swapped with firm tofu in some dishes.
Remove excess water by either pressing or salt-soaking. As block tofu has a generally mild taste, it makes it the perfect base to enhance or create dishes.
In addition to draining water, consider marinating extra-firm tofu if you’d like a more flavourful dish. The marinating process can last from half an hour to overnight, especially since this tofu type will hold up its shape throughout the marination process.
Its chewy texture makes extra-firm tofu popular as a meat substitute. They’re also often featured in noodle, veggie, or meat stir-fries like Korean Japchae (Korean Glass Noodle Stir Fry). You can also eat it on its own!
Crispy Baked Tofu
- Prepare extra-firm tofu by removing nearly all moisture content to ensure maximum crispiness
- Coat tofu in soy sauce and cornstarch
- Bake tofu until golden brown
#5 Long-life tofu
While an unopened pack of tofu can last for a few months in the refrigerator after its manufacturing date, you might want something with a longer shelf life. Consider long-life tofu, which tastes very similar to fresh tofu, and can be stored in a cool, dry place for between a few months to a year. However, it only keeps in the refrigerator 3-5 days after opening.
The next time you’re at the grocery store, why not purchase some tofu and explore cooking with this versatile Asian ingredient?