Invented in China roughly 2,000 years ago, tofu has been embraced by cultures across Asia and beyond, taking on new forms and flavours along the way. To make tofu, dried soybeans are soaked and then ground and filtered into soy milk. Coagulants cause soy milk to form curds of plant-powered protein that are turned into different kinds of tofu.
The protein-and-water matrix can be endlessly manipulated for a range of textures, amenable to soaking up the flavour of anything you throw at it. “Even though many people think that it is super bland, it’s a mighty little ingredient,” says expert and cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, who shared her favourite types of tofu.
If you’re lucky enough to find fresh tofu, try simpler preparations that let its custardy sweetness shine. And don’t dismiss your basic supermarket soft, medium-firm, and firm ones — they can play a starring role in every meal of the day, from a crispy sandwich to a delectably chewy doughnut.
1. Dried Tofu Skin
When it’s dried, tender tofu skin (doufu pi in Mandarin, yuba in Japanese) becomes earthy and chewy. It’s sold in many shapes and is hardy enough to withstand braises, bold sauces, and stir-fries.
Nutty-tasting skin forms on top of freshly made soy milk, similar to the skin that forms overheated whole milk. This layer is carefully skimmed off the top of heated soy milk and eaten fresh, or it’s hung on lines to dry into sheets, which can then be scrunched and twisted into sticks. The fresher the skin, the silkier and milder it is. Dried tofu skin sheets can be simmered or soaked to soften or rehydrate. They make great wraps and are a versatile addition to soups and stir-fries, mimicking the texture of shredded meat.
Roll it: Use rehydrated tofu skin sheets as wraps for crisp vegetables and herbs, and serve with a peanut dipping sauce.
Toss it: Slice fresh into ribbons, and toss with scallions, chilli oil, sautéed vegetables, and soy sauce for a cold “noodle” salad.
2. Medium-Firm Tofu
Medium-firm tofu can vary greatly in texture, depending on the manufacturer. It’s usually sliceable but can be tricky to crisp up due to its relatively high water content. Tender yet stable, medium-firm tofu is ideal for gently cooked stews and saucy preparations where it can be simmered without breaking down completely or where it can be mashed and crumbled for a vegan egg alternative, as with this tender Tofu Bhurji, a riff on anda bhurji, an Indian scrambled egg dish.
Top it: To make hiyayakko, a Japanese tofu dish, top a block of cold medium-firm tofu with fried garlic, scallions, dried wakame, sesame seeds, and soy sauce.
Mash it: Mash it; season with salt, pepper, herbs, and lemon for a dairy-free ricotta substitute to layer into lasagna.
To make extra-firm tofu, soy-milk curds are pressed to expel as much moisture as possible. While there is variability among brands, this will be among the densest tofu in the refrigerated section, along with superfirm. Uncooked, it has a squeakiness reminiscent of fresh cheese. Crisped in the oven or pan-fried, it’s a great addition to soups, stir-fries, and this sandwich that gives fried fish sandwiches a run for their money.
Wrap it: Grate extra-firm tofu and mix with shredded cabbage, gochujang, ginger, and soy sauce. Wrap in premade dumpling wrappers, and steam or pan-fry.
Press it: Press extra-firm tofu in a tofu press; cube, pan-fry and use in place of paneer in recipes such as saag paneer or matar paneer.
4. Tofu Pudding
Gently coagulated and never pressed, jiggly tofu pudding can be found in yoghurt-tub packaging in the refrigerated section of Asian grocery stores. Tofu pudding has a mild, nutty sweetness; enjoy it warm with sweet or savoury toppings.
5. Tofu Puffs
Craveable, fatty, and spongy, tofu puffs often come as chunky squares and slices. They absorb flavours well and are good for stuffing. Japanese inari sushi is encased by square slices of seasoned tofu puffs called aburaage.
6. Fresh Tofu Skin
Fresh tofu skin is precious, so treat it simply. Slice sheets into “noodles” and simmer in broth to enjoy its silkiness. In Japan, where it’s known as yuba, it may be eaten like sashimi.
7. Silken Tofu
Silken tofu has the highest moisture content of this bunch. It is unpressed and made from coagulated extra-rich soy milk left to set so it becomes scoopable, custard-like, and jiggly. It shines in savoury preparations, like yudofu, a Japanese dish of tofu simmered in dashi, but it’s a knockout in sweet recipes like these springy, strawberry- or lemon flavoured Pon de Ring.
Slice it: Slice or scoop cold silken tofu onto sliced tomatoes, and top with fresh basil and balsamic vinegar for a vegan take on Caprese salad.
Drizzle it: To make taho, a sweet Filipino snack, drizzle brown sugar syrup over gently warmed silken tofu, and top it with pearls of sago or tapioca.
If you have a local tofu producer, your Asian grocery may carry this soybean pulp, the leftovers of tofu production. A stellar binder and partial egg replacement, it can be baked into cookies and quick breads.
9. Fu Ru
Packed in jars with brine, Chinese fermented tofu (known as fu ru or jiang doufu) is excitingly potent; the dice-size cubes are capable of disappearing into your dish like a stealthy magic weapon.
Growing up, a jar was always in the back of the refrigerator. Fu ru comes in a few varieties, one of which (hong fu ru) has deep-red brining liquid from the addition of fermented red rice yeast. This is the kind of fermented tofu that my dad would pull out a couple of times a year to add to the braising liquid in a Cantonese-style ngau nam, a stew made from the outside beef flank, the tough cut turning deliciously, meltingly tender. The jar of off-white fu ru, swimming in a brine seasoned with sesame oil and sometimes chilli flakes, was my mother’s. It was sometimes included in a battalion of condiments to serve with a bowl of morning rice porridge, a typical breakfast in her native Taiwan.
The cubes are creamy and spreadable, with a salty, funky taste that may draw comparisons to feta or blue cheese. Use them to season a simple sautéed green vegetable; the fu ru dissolves in water that’s added to the greens as they wilt and turns the liquid a cloudy jade-green. While fu ru can be eaten straight up from the jar, this flavour powerhouse also makes a great addition to sauces and dips. —Cathy Erway
10. Doufu Gan
Doufu gan literally means “dry tofu” in Mandarin. Dense and hearty, it is available as unadorned white slabs or brown ones seasoned with Chinese five-spice powder and soy sauce. Enjoy it in speedy stir-fries or sliced for sandwiches.
11. Tofu Noodles
Firmly pressed tofu that’s cut into strands, tofu noodles are springy, stretchy, and chewy; look for them in vacuum-sealed packages at Chinese or Taiwanese grocery stores. Prepare them by draining, blanching, and seasoning. Let them chill, and enjoy them tossed with crisp vegetables for a cold salad.
12. Hong Fu Ru
This pungent fermented tofu is deep red from the addition of fermented red rice yeast to the brining liquid. It also comes in a white version, called fu ru (see number 9).
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