There’s so much to love about tofu

By Andrea Nguyen, The New York Times

These are good times for tofu lovers, with an expanding market and growing options.

When Jenny Yang bought the Chicago-based company Phoenix Bean in 2006, she was keeping it from going out of business. Now, she is among a number of producers who are expanding offerings to include items like Chinese-style smoked tofu and tofu noodles.

“Tofu is not just a block,” said Yang, whose small-batch products feature local ingredients like Illinois soybeans grown specifically for her brand and Great Lakes water. “We have baked, we have shredded tofu, we have flavored.”

Tofu is a staple of cooking in China, where it was invented 2,000 years ago, and throughout Asia. In the United States, tofu consumption has roughly doubled — to 9% of domestic households — since before the pandemic, according to Pulmuone Foods, the country’s leading producer. (The market is estimated at $142 million, up from $100.6 million in 2019.) And makers are preparing for even greater growth: Pulmuone has significantly increased production capacity, as has Phoenix Bean.

“We are ready to get to the next phase, to provide people with different options,” Yang said.

The rising popularity of plant-based cooking is also seeding a groundswell of interest in celebrating tofu’s power and potential. If you’re new to tofu — or even if you’re not — you may not know the full depth and breadth of styles, and what to use when. Don’t let that hinder you. In fact, you can consider tofu as falling into three broad categories: basic, chewy and intensely flavored.

Tofu’s Wide Range

Making tofu is a simple yet nuanced craft: High-protein food-grade soybeans are carefully selected and soaked, made into soy milk and coagulated with a salt or edible organic acid, or both. The resulting semisolid curds and clear whey are further manipulated for different kinds of tofu.

As a general rule, your needs and where you shop will determine the tofu you select. Most recipes call for basic tofu, sold in tubs or vacuum-sealed packages. Its neutral character and porous texture make it a kind of culinary chameleon, allowing it to easily take on flavors, whether in earthy braises or zippy stir-fries, or served crisped and served with a dipping sauce.

Texture is determined by if and how the curds are pressed. Basic tofu options include silken, medium, medium-firm, firm, extra-firm and super-firm. Many dishes involve slicing, cubing and mashing tofu, but, depending on its density, it can be scooped, crumbled and even grated.

While mainstream supermarkets typically carry only silken and firmer types, Asian grocers offer the full spectrum, with medium and medium-firm tofu as the go-to for many cooks when preparing classics, such as mapo tofu and agedashi tofu.

Available at Chinese and Vietnamese markets and at tofu shops, custardy tofu pudding with ginger syrup is a popular treat. You can make a shortcut version at home using silken tofu.

Pressed (baked) tofu, tofu sheets and fried tofu are all styles of chewy tofu. Their low-water content makes them especially convenient, requiring minimal prep or manipulation. Hannah Che, author of “The Vegan Chinese Kitchen” (Clarkson Potter, 2022) and the chef of Surong, a vegan modern Chinese pop-up in Portland, Oregon, uses pressed tofu sheets, cut into ribbons, in her liángbàn gāndòufusī, a shredded tofu salad.

Some dishes specify a certain kind of chewy tofu — think fried tofu pouches for inari sushi — but when you are experimenting, just cut the tofu and add it to soups, hot pots, rolls, salads and sandwiches. It is no-fail tofu.

Pressed tofu, which is sold unseasoned (plain) or flavored (labeled braised or baked), is available at some mainstream grocers, East Asian markets and tofu shops.

Fried tofu belongs to the realm of Asian grocers. Mostly sold at Chinese markets, nubby tofu sheets are worth seeking out. (Despite its name, tofu skin, or yuba, is only a film of soy milk, so it is not technically tofu, which involves a coagulant.)

Intensely flavored tofu includes stinky tofu, a deep-fried favorite in Taiwan. But what gets more action — especially as an umami-packed seasoning — are white and red fermented tofu (aka fermented bean curd), which are sold in jars at Chinese and Vietnamese markets in the condiments section. Much like cheese, they vary in fabulous funk. White fermented tofu can be fragrant and winy, rich from sesame oil or spicy from chile. It commonly seasons stir-fried greens but can be combined with lemongrass and lime for a vibrant Vietnamese sauce to serve with crudités. Sweet, salty and aromatic red fermented tofu contains red yeast rice and is often used for Cantonese char siu pork.

How to Use It

Tofu’s beauty lies in its cross-cultural applications. For example, if ricotta is unavailable for lasagna, use mashed medium-firm tofu. Medium-firm or firm tofu can take the place of mozzarella in a vegan caprese. In a stir-fry, partly or fully replace the meat with sliced pressed (baked) tofu. To use it in moist, low-meat burgers, add one part mashed firm tofu to two parts meat. Bear in mind that tofu is fully cooked, so you can always taste it to ensure the flavors work before adding it to raw protein.

Wherever your tofu journey leads you, consider it as having the Chinese notion of bāoróng de gèxìng, a very generous nature.

“I think generous can mean versatile,” Che said. “But also I think it’s just very forgiving to work with.”

Dòuhuā (Silken Tofu With Ginger Syrup)

By Andrea Nguyen

A mainstay at dim sum restaurants and a popular street food in China and Southeast Asia, this cozy tofu pudding is as simple as scooping tofu and pouring gingery syrup on top. Also known as dòufuhuā in Mandarin (“bean curd flower” or “tofu flower”), dòuhuā is typically made with freshly made tender tofu, but packaged silken tofu makes the treat extra doable at home. For wonderful, custardy results, select silken tofu that’s been molded in its tub. (Block tofu sitting in a moat of water tends to be too firm.) Using a broad, shallow spoon to scoop out the tofu creates thin, wide shards, yielding maximum surface area exposure to the zippy ginger syrup. Warming the tofu in the microwave reveals its tender richness to mimic the texture of fresh dòuhuā. Old-school renditions feature just tofu and ginger syrup, but modern ones might include a wide range of add-ins similar to those offered for shaved-ice or boba treats. Canned mandarin orange segments would add vibrant contrast.

Yield: 6 servings

Total time: 50 minutes


  • 1 chubby (1 1/2-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled, very thinly sliced and smashed
  • 1/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup agave syrup or mild honey
  • 1 star anise (optional)
  • 2 (16-ounce) packages silken tofu


1. In a small saucepan, combine the ginger, brown sugar, agave, star anise (if using) and 1/2 cup water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then lower the heat to around medium-low to briskly simmer for about 6 minutes, until fragrant and slightly thickened. (Coat the back of a metal spoon in the mixture, then drag your fingertip across it and a faint line should hold.) Turn off the heat and let sit for about 15 minutes, uncovered, to intensify flavor and thicken to a syrupy consistency. Pour through a mesh strainer set over a small bowl, press on the solids, then discard the solids. You should have a generous 1/2 cup ginger syrup. (The syrup keeps, refrigerated, for up to 5 days.)

2. Before assembling, gather 6 small, microwave-safe bowls (ideally what you’d serve rice or ice cream in). Pour out any excess water from each tofu tub. Wield a broad, shallow metal serving spoon in a horizontal motion to scoop up large, very shallow pieces of the tofu, dividing them among the bowls. (It’s normal for the pieces to be irregular in shape and size.)

3. Heat the bowls of tofu in the microwave, fitting as many in as possible and zapping in 20-second intervals until slightly warmed through. Liquid inevitably accumulates and you may pour it out to prevent it from diluting the syrup, or just allow its delicate tang to add to the overall flavor.

4. Drizzle each serving with about 1 1/2 tablespoons of ginger syrup. Enjoy with a spoon.

Liangban Gandoufusi (Shredded Tofu Salad)

Recipe from Hannah Che

Adapted by Andrea Nguyen

Take a stack of sturdy, nutty-tasting fresh tofu sheets (gāndòufu in Mandarin) and cut them up into noodle-like ribbons to combine with cucumber, cilantro and a spicy, garlicky sauce. The stunningly good, satisfying result is a northeastern Chinese treat, a favorite of cookbook author Hannah Che. This recipe was adapted from her debut, “The Vegan Chinese Kitchen” (Clarkson Potter, 2022). Look for vacuum-sealed packages of tan-colored, nubby gāndòufu, often labeled as “soy tofu sheet” in the refrigerated tofu section in Chinese markets. Enjoy this salad with dumplings or a cozy soup. Change things up by stuffing it into a baguette or featuring it in lettuce wraps. — Andrea Nguyen

Yield: 6 servings

Total time: 40 minutes


For the salad:

  • 8 ounces/230 grams pressed tofu sheets (gandoufu); see Tip
  • 1 small Persian cucumber, halved, seeded and julienned
  • 1 large handful fresh cilantro, stems and leaves cut into 1-inch segments (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced scallion whites
  • 4 or 5 mild dried red chiles, such as Tianjin, snipped into 1/2-inch segments, seeds shaken out
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced

For the dressing:

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar, plus more to taste
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons chile oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal), plus more to taste
  • 3/4 teaspoon granulated sugar, plus more to taste
  • 3 tablespoons neutral oil (such as canola or peanut)
  • Toasted sesame seeds, for garnish


1. Cut the tofu sheets into 4-inch-wide strips. (If they’re the standard 8-inch-square sheets, just cut them in half.) Next, cut those strips crosswise into narrower, 1/4-inch-wide pieces that resemble short noodles; to efficiently slice the strips, roll two sheets up at a time like a cinnamon roll before cutting. Scrappy bits are fine.

2. Bring a medium or large saucepan of water to a rolling boil. Toss in the tofu noodles and blanch for about 2 minutes, or just until the water returns to a boil. Drain, dump the noodles back into the pot, add cold water to cover and then drain again. (This will improve the tofu’s texture and reduce its beany flavors.) Let sit for a few minutes to cool, then in batches, use your hands to squeeze out water from the noodles.

3. Put the cucumber and cilantro in a large bowl, then add the tofu noodles, spreading them out flat. Atop the tofu noodles toward the center, add the aromatics: scallion whites, dried chiles and garlic. In a small bowl, stir together the soy sauce, vinegar, chile oil, sesame oil, salt and sugar; set the dressing aside.

4. In a small saucepan, heat the neutral oil over medium until nearly smoking, about 2 minutes. Pour the hot oil over the aromatics to release their fragrance with a loud sizzle. Pour the dressing onto the tofu noodles then toss well to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired, adding more vinegar for acidity, sugar for sweetness, and salt as needed. Transfer to a serving bowl or deep plate (including the dressing for flavor), sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve immediately.

Tip: To use tassel-like “soy tofu slices,” cut the pieces crosswise into 3- to 4-inch-long strips. With the remaining ends (the tops of the tassels), stand each on its uncut side and slice crosswise to match the other noodles. Use your fingers to quickly separate them before using.

Crudités With Lemongrass-Fermented Tofu Dip

By Andrea Nguyen

For rau củ sống chấm chao, a Vietnamese take on crudités, serve raw, seasonal veggies with a tangy, spicy, umami-rich sauce featuring chao (fermented tofu), a wondrous ingredient that’s akin to creamy, winy cheese. Fermented tofu typically punches up stir-fried greens or a bowl of porridge, but Vietnamese cooks love to let it shine as a sauce. The dynamite nước chấm chao (fermented tofu dipping sauce) could be paired with grilled goat or lamb, but it’s fantastic as a dip. For this recipe, from my cookbook “Ever-Green Vietnamese” (Ten Speed Press, 2023), choose at least three vegetables from the crudité options. The sesame seed addition isn’t standard, but adds body and richness to the sauce, uniting the ingredients. Make a double batch of sauce, if you like, so you have extra to dress grilled romaine; top it with fried shallots for a summertime salad.

Yield: 6 servings

Total time: 40 minutes


For the dip:

  • 1/4 cup packed fermented white tofu (see Tip), preferably without chile, plus brine as needed
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons agave syrup, mild honey or granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, plus more as needed
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh lemongrass
  • 2 to 3 Thai or small serrano chiles, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons toasted white sesame seeds (optional, to thicken and enrich)
  • 1 to 3 teaspoons neutral oil (such as canola or peanut)

For the crudités:

  • 1 or 2 small watermelon radishes, or a half or whole bunch red radishes, sliced thinly or cut into wedges
  • 1 or 2 medium carrots, scrubbed or peeled then sliced on the diagonal
  • 1/2 to 1 pound jicama, peeled and cut into chubby, 3-inch sticks
  • 1 or 2 Persian cucumbers, or 1/4 to 1/2 small English cucumber, thickly sliced or cut into chubby 3-inch sticks
  • 1 or 2 small handfuls raw asparagus or green beans, trimmed and cut into 3-inch lengths
  • 1 or 2 small endives, leaves separated


1. Prepare the dip: In a small bowl, using a fork or the back of a spoon, mash the tofu (expect lingering solids). Stir in the agave and lime juice, then add tofu brine by the teaspoon to achieve a pleasant salty-sour-sweet-winy balance. Stir in the lemongrass and chiles. (You can make the sauce up to 5 days ahead and refrigerate in an airtight container; return to room temperature to serve.)

2. If using the sesame seeds, use a mortar and pestle to stir, grind and pound them into a fragrant, finely textured mixture. (Alternatively, use a small food processor or an electric spice grinder.) Scrape and stir into the dip. Let the dip develop flavor for about 15 minutes before tasting, then add enough of the neutral oil to soften, lime juice to brighten, plus additional brine to intensify.

3. Prepare the crudités: If the veggies are limp and need perking up, fill a large bowl with water and ice, then submerge them in the icy bath for a few minutes to crisp; drain and pat dry. Arrange all the crudités on a platter. Transfer the dip to a small bowl and set in the center or on the side of the platter. Invite diners to dip and eat.

Tip: You can find fermented tofu in the condiment aisle at Chinese or Vietnamese markets. Look for jars of “fermented bean curd” containing tofu cubes in brine; brands such as Cache’ de Chef, Hwang Ryh Shiang and Wei-Chuan are consistently good. Instead of fermented tofu, you can substitute 2 1/2 tablespoons of shiro (white) miso mixed with 1 1/2 tablespoons water to make a less edgy lemongrass-miso dip.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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