Fear of tofu

November 20, 2009

Don’t get me wrong, I love tofu. In good Thai and Japanese restaurants, or when somebody skilled cooks it for me. Agedashi tofu is one of my favourite things in the world. And at our favourite Thai, the beloved Ploy, there are a couple of tofu dishes to die for – one stir-fried tofu with bean sprouts, and the other a divine larb tofu salad.

Tofu should be on our home menu more often as we are trying to cut down on meat for all the obvious and much-discussed reasons.

But when it comes to cooking with tofu, I am filled with anxiety. Which one, for starters? What is the difference between ‘silken’ and ‘firm silken’ and ‘firm’, for example? Recipes tend to say ‘firm’  or ‘soft’ but the shops seem to have zillions of different kinds. I am way too confused to master this stuff, and always expect it to fall apart, so have generally just steered clear.

However, yesterday I decided to feel the fear and do it anyway (which reminds me of stonesoup’s excellent post on that subject recently).

I decided to have a crack at a very delicious looking Karen Martini recipe that appeared in the Sunday rag a little while ago. But as hers had salted black beans and various other bits and bobs in it, and I couldn’t be bothered hauling myself to the Asian supermarket to get such things, I just bastardised our usual basil and chilli stirfry taught to me many years ago by our Asian gourmand friend Ricardo, the lunging latino.

The first thing I did was buy the wrong tofu. ‘Firm silken’ is not the same as ‘firm’, I discovered as soon as I unwrapped the former (pictured above, at rear). Lovely soft, wobbly stuff – but even getting it out of the packet made it start to crumble and collapse, and I had visions of a wokful of sloppy custard. So back to the grocer for a block of the hard stuff, easily chopped into pieces (foreground).

I dried and fried the tofu cubes first, then drained them on kitchen paper – then did the rest of the stirfry and then tossed the tofu back in at the end with the fish sauce and basil. The result? Pretty damn fine! So here is the befuddled recipe, which can obviously be mixed and matched and altered as you wish.

But before my next foray into tofuworld, I would love to hear from any aficionados who may be lurking here – I need your advice! Tips, tricks, which is best for what, other easy recipes, how to buy, store, etc. Come on: spill.

Pork & tofu stir fry with chilli & basil

  • rice bran / peanut / vegetable oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced
  • small knob ginger, julienned
  • 1 block firm tofu, cut into 1.5cm cubes
  • 150g pork mince
  • 1/3 red capsicum, cut into sizable chunks
  • handful green beans, halved
  • 2 birdseye chillis with seeds, split lengthwise
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce, or more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar, to taste
  • 1/2 bunch basil
  • steamed jasmine rice, to serve
  1. Heat a little oil in wok or other pan to smoking point, then toss in garlic &  ginger for 10-20 seconds.
  2. Add tofu cubes and fry for 2 minutes, turning so all sides are golden.
  3. Remove wok from heat while you remove tofu pieces & leave to drain on kitchen paper.
  4. Return to heat and add pork mince to pan, stir frying for a few minutes.
  5. Remove pork and set aside. Either wipe out pan or continue with pork juices.
  6. Add chilli, beans, capsicum and cook on high heat till just tender – a little water added to the pan can sometimes help cook more evenly.
  7. Return pork and tofu to pan and stir to mix, keeping heat high
  8. Add fish sauce & brown sugar, adjusting each to taste.
  9. When you are happy with the seasoning, tear basil leaves from stalks and toss through.
  10. Serve on a bed of fluffy rice.


  1. That sounds and looks yummy Charlotte. That firm stuff is a winner. I often chuck it through a stir fry or fried rice in lieu of or to supplement meat. I quite like the firm stuff that’s already a bit seasoned with 5-spice or something. A good thing for that delectable silky stuff is steaming with soy, ginger and green onions. Plonked on a saucer in the steamer it won’t fall apart. By the way I had an excellent agedashi tofu today at Sushiman in Balmain, recommended by an important member of the legal fraternity and mutual friend who works up the road.

  2. Hmmm that legal eagle has come through with the goods, eh? Excellent work. What do you think about the possibility of replicating the Ploy Thai’s larb tofu at home? It’s the firm stuff, right? If one chopped it up very finely and then added heaps of lemon juice and chilli and fish sauce and spices or whatever else goes into larb?

    • Yep, it couldn’t be that hard to do larb at home. It’s definitely firm unseasoned tofu, with all those ingredients you mentioned plus mint, coriander, red shallots and lemongrass I think.

  3. Same, Same! Never know which to buy or what to do with it.Had lovely eggplant and tofu at my local Viet and wish I knew what it was so I could track it down and try to replicate…

  4. We once had an asian dinner party where everyone brought a dish. We did this chilli and lime tofu soup and for someone who up until that point hated tofu it was a revelation.

    Of course i lost the recipe in sharehouse moves and have never been able to find anything remotely like it again.

  5. Sounds -and looks- delicious – even that red spatula. Cynics would say newspaper in this mixture would be too, but not me. Supplementing meats with this obliging carrier could convert disbelievers and prolong life indefinitely.

    I like silken tofu steamed on the plate- with sauce of chili/ginger/shallots/garlic/soy etc poured over it at the end. The nervous are strongly advised to serve it on the plate it’s cooked on.

    At Varuna I once saw a desperate vegetarian slam the lid of the sandwich toaster on a slice of hard tofu brushed with soy. Apparently very toothsome.

  6. Beeso, I am intrigued by your soup! Am imagining white slush, but am sure it was better … if I imagine steamed loveliness as described by others, in chilli stocky broth, heaven. You must remember the recipe and return with it!

    Jules, I am so glad you like my spatula. Didn’t see till afterwards how photogenic it is. Quite Christmassy really, that shot, don’t you think? Also am intrigued by tofu in the sanger toaster, though it makes me feel a little despondent and brings back memories of university era communal vego food, which always seemed to be some kind of brown sludge with one flavour: soy sauce. Gave vegetables such a bad name, that era … brown rice undercooked so it was like eating little pellets of rock, with the sole flavouring being soy sauce, and barely any fresh veg actually to be seen. Yick. I wonder if 19 year old vegetarians are still cooking that stuff. Mind you, all I ever cooked back then was disgusting one-note spag bol (meat and tomato paste) and recall eating a helluva lot of what one flatmate described enticingly as Tuna Slop. Involved macaroni, canned tuna and cheese. Ugh.

  7. Nothing nicer than a festive spatula. Or handier when Santa disappoints. I thought it was a huge chili at first.

    Slightly emabarrased to say I still make my own version of tuna surprise- great comfort food. Tempted to suggest a tuna casserole bake off. Recipes must be authentic- comsumed in student accomodatiom- and involve tinned tuna.

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