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August 30, 2004

How to cook tofu in a stir-fry

Today's question is from Rajesh Krishnamurthy, who is having problems with handling tofu. He writes:

I have always had problem with tofu, in that it crumbled or was too soft. I've tried frying it in a wok for a few minutes but not too happy with the results. Do you have any tips for that?

I have not one, but more tips for that. You're not the first person to ask me about that either. The first time I tried making tofu, I got the tofu equivalent of overcooked scrambled eggs. It took me a fair bit of research to figure out how to tame the darn thing.

Rajesh, I have no idea where you live, so I don't know what type of tofu you get in your part of the world. There are a fair few varieties of tofu you can find in the east. The most common varieties you'll find in shops here are the soft, silken tofu and the firm pressed tofu.

The silken tofu has a higher water content, is very fragile, and is best used in soups and salads. It has a mushy, creamy texture and has the consistency of a soft custard. It it totally unsuitable for stir-frying and will readily disintegrate if you stir-fry it. Are you sure this isn't the type you're buying? Ask if your shop has "firm tofu" or "pressed tofu".

The firm tofu feels fairly firm to the touch and can be cut into cubes relatively easily. This type has a smooth surface on the top of the blocks because it's been pressed to extract some of the excess water in it. (This, incidentally, also increases the protein content per kg of the tofu.) The tofu is fine for stir-frying as long as you don't cut into very small pieces or toss the living daylights out of it. If the tofu is sold packed in water, it most likely is the firm tofu.

What's that? Your supermarket sells only the silky type? Well, you'll just have to catch the next flight to the nearest Chinatown, won't you?

Yeah, right. OK, here's my quick-fix instead.

If you're stuck with the soft tofu because nothing else is available, you can turn it into a semi-firm form by pressing it at home. Cut the soft tofu (gently now) into blocks that are no more than an inch thick. Put these blocks between two sheets of strong kitchen towel on both sides. Then put a firm weight of about one kilogram on top. If you can't find a weight that's big enough, put a large flat plate on top of the tofu and put the weight on top of the plate, right in the middle so the weight is evenly distributed. Leave this weight on for about 1-2 hours, changing the paper towels a couple of times so you can get rid of the extra water. At the end of this ordeal, you'll be left with tofu that's about 75% of the weight you started with, but much firmer. Use this in your stir-fries instead and you'll notice the difference.

Now that I have answered your question, let me pontificate about tofu for a while. I've met people who have absolute hatred for tofu. One of my veggo friends once described it as "a sorry excuse for a vegetarian ingredient". At the risk of being accused of heresy by my fellow lovers of oriental cooking, let me add that I partially agree with this assessment. Tofu in its native soft state presents itself to me as a bland block of custard, with a smooth, slippery texture and almost no taste of its own. In this form, the only way I can eat it is to cut into very small pieces and tossed along with other ingredients in some spicy noodles. I dread biting into large blocks of it in  a stir-fry because to my Thai chilli-conditioned tongue, it just doesn't have much flavour. (Here's where some purist argues viciously with me that its purpose is to act as a "balancing" flavour in a medley of strongly flavoured dishes. Yes ma'am, your point is noted and acknowledged.)

Where was I? Oh yes, the bland nature of regular tofu. I'm not a big fan of anything "bland". (Digression: Hell, I don't particularly like French food.) So you'd think that I would've given up on tofu as a lost cause. Thankfully, there are other ways of giving this ingredient some more assertive qualities.

The simple way is to freeze the damn thing. Put a block of tofu in the freezer overnight. The next day it will look as if someone painted it brown. Don't worry, it hasn't gone to the dogs yet. Now put this frozen block in the refrigerator for a few hours to thaw. It will now have a nice, airy texture and a far meatier, chewy feel. This to me is a better approximation to a meat substitute. Stir-fry this and your tofu dishes will taste better. But please... don't even think of doing this with the silky tofu I talked about earlier. You will not be able to salvage anything from the resulting mess, unless you want a tofu-stuffed omelette.

Another great way of making tofu taste good is to deep-fry it. Deep-fried tofu is a wonderful snack on its own because it miraculously acquires a rich spongy taste that actually tastes good without any other seasoning. Deep-fried tofu also absorbs flavours very well, so it works wonderfully in strong stir-fries and also assertive Asian curries. At Shiok, we serve deep-fried tofu with a spicy peanut sauce, and it's delicious that way.

To deep-fry tofu, cut them into rectangular pieces no more than half an inch thick. Too thick and the insides won't be done. Too thin and it will be too crunchy all the way. Put enough oil into a wok for deep-frying and maintain the flame at medium. If the heat is too high, the outside will be too hard. Too low and your tofu will drink the oil. Deep-fry the tofu in this oil till it gets a nice golden brown colour. Remove from the oil and drain well on kitchen towels. Wait a few minutes for it to cool down and bite into a piece. There, isn't that better? OK, mister, put the next piece down! Put it down, I tell you! We need to use it in other dishes.

Deep-fried tofu can be stir-fried in many dishes and it will have enough character of its own to do more than just taste like bland custard. Try it out and see for yourself.

That's just a basic primer on tofu. I hope it gives you some ideas. Email me and let me know how it works for you.

Wait, Rajesh also had another request:

    I would really appreciate if you post some good vegetarian recipes.

Gosh, I've just typed more than 1100 words at one stretch, Rajesh. You want a recipe on top of that? Alright, I'll post a tofu recipe tomorrow. Come back and look for it.