Y’all already know I love changing the narrative that tofu is bland. Thanks to these 40 Terrific Tofu Recipes (along with many others), we’ve learned tofu is anything but boring when it’s given a chance to shine. And this Chinese-inspired Braised Tofu recipe further confirms it!
It begins by pan-frying tofu squares until they’re golden brown. From there, the crispy tofu is braised in a deeply savory, slightly sweet, and spicy Chinese sauce until every bite is infused with rich flavor. Scoop the spicy braised tofu over rice and greens, then enjoy!
Seriously, it’s one of my favorite-ever tofu dishes, and I can’t wait for you to try it!
Why this recipe works
Braising = perfectly cooked tofu.
There are essentially two steps to braising tofu:
Step 1: Pan-fry or deep fry tofu until the pieces are golden brown and crisp. While deep frying produces excellent results, I found that pan-frying tofu first works very well and is more suitable for most home cooks.
Step 2: Simmer the crispy tofu in a flavor-rich sauce.
Just like a sponge, the tofu absorbs all of those rich, wonderful flavors. It’s quickly transformed from a plain soy block to an irresistible, restaurant-quality meal!
Chinese restaurant-style flavors.
You can typically find braised tofu with vegetables (sometimes called hong shao tofu or hongshao dofu) on the menu at many Chinese and Cantonese restaurants. My version encapsulates those same great restaurant-style flavors thanks to a few heavy-hitting ingredients but with its own twists and flavors. Every bite is deeply savory, tangy, sweet, and just a bit spicy.
Big flavor; easy to make.
Despite the gourmet flavors, this is a recipe you can easily whip up on a weeknight. This is especially true when you multitask (head to the Tips section for more info)!
While this may not be an authentic Chinese recipe, the close-to-authentic ingredients impart each bite with flavors similar to what you’d find in a Chinese restaurant.
Extra firm tofu
You’ll always find blocks of extra firm tofu in my fridge. It’s the best for pan-frying because it contains very little moisture*, creating crispier bites while still soaking in flavor like a sponge. It also holds its shape well when frying, unlike medium-firm tofu or softer varieties.
Substitute: Firm tofu can be used instead of extra-firm tofu. It’s a little softer, so handle it with care when frying and flipping.
Note: Despite its firmness, it’s always a good idea to still press the tofu first. The less water the tofu has, (1) the quicker it fries and (2) the more it’s able to hold onto the flavor in the braising liquid. Plus, you can prep all your aromatics and sauce while the tofu presses.
An essential ingredient in any Chinese braised tofu recipe because it gives the sauce its baseline of rich savoriness. I prefer to use Chinese “light” soy sauce when making a Chinese recipe like this (find it at Asian markets or online), but regular grocery store soy sauce (e.g., Kikkoman soy sauce) works just fine.
Substitute: Use tamari or gluten-free soy sauce if gluten free.
Chinese black vinegar
Don’t sleep on this ingredient. It is so unique and gives this dish umami-rich, earthy, tart, and subtly sweet undertones.
Because it’s a fermented product, black vinegar lasts for a very long time in your pantry. You can use it to make this braised tofu, as well as my 15-Minute Vegan Chili Garlic Noodles! If you want to read more about Chinese black vinegar, check out these posts from The Woks of Life and Bon Appetit.
Where to buy: The most common variety of Chinese black vinegar in the states is Chinkiang black vinegar (affiliate link) from Southern China (you might also find it sold as Zhenjiang). It’s very affordable and can be purchased at East Asian grocery stores or line.
Substitute: Can’t find it, or need to avoid even small amounts of gluten? Use rice vinegar or Shaoxing wine (Chinese black vinegar is usually fermented with grains).
A blend of Chinese five spice powder, white pepper, and Sichuan chile flakes brings incredible warming flavor to the braising liquid.
Substitute: You can omit the chile flakes if this recipe sounds too spicy. And if you don’t have Sichuan chile flakes, you can use standard red pepper flakes instead or gochugaru (Korean chile flakes) if you have them.
Where to buy: Five spice powder and white pepper are available at well-stocked grocery stores, like Whole Foods and Vons, or Asian markets. Sichuan chile flakes (affiliate link) are toasty and aromatic, and available at East Asian markets or online.
Cornstarch has a magical ability to turn into a thickening slurry when stirred together with water. Here, it transforms the braising liquid into a sticky sauce that clings to the fried tofu.
Substitute: Arrowroot powder should work fine instead of cornstarch.
Press the tofu to drain as much water as possible. Pressed tofu = crispy tofu! Slice the tofu into squares that are ⅓” to ½” (1 cm) thick.
Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat and season the tops of the tofu squares with a little salt while you wait. Once hot, add the oil followed by the seasoned tofu.
Pan-fry the tofu pieces in a single layer until golden brown on the bottom. Flip, then continue cooking until the bottom side is also golden brown.
Meanwhile, make the braising liquid by shaking the ingredients together in a jar or whisking them in a bowl.
Transfer the fried tofu to a paper towel-lined cutting board to drain. Wipe out the excess oil from the pan, then add the Chinese chile oil (or any oil of choice). Heat the chile oil before adding the scallions, garlic, and ginger. Toss until they’re fragrant.
Add the vegetables and briefly stir fry. Pour the braising liquid into the pan. Simmer until it’s thickened a bit.
Once the sauce has thickened, pour the cornstarch slurry into the pan. Whisk until the sauce is thickened, but still pourable.
Add the fried tofu into the sauce and toss to coat. Turn down the heat to a gentle simmer until the liquid has thickened into a sauce that sticks to the tofu. Take it off the heat.
Scoop the sauce-covered tofu over rice and garnish with a drizzle of sesame oil, sesame seeds, and scallion greens. Enjoy!
Tips for making this recipe
Follow these tips to help guide you through this recipe:
Multitask to save time.
You can have braised tofu on the table in about 45 minutes, but you can shave a few minutes off of that time with a few multitasking shortcuts. Here’s how it’s done:
While the tofu is being pressed: Prep all of your aromatics and chop your veggies.
While the tofu is frying: Stir the braising sauce together.
To save even more time, prep the aromatics and vegetables and make the braising sauce the night before. Keep everything in separate airtight containers in the fridge.
Use chile oil if you can.
I LOVE using Chinese chile oil or the oil from a jar of chile crisp in place of regular cooking oil when sautéing the aromatics. It gives the dish a burst of umami, plus a subtle heat.
You can find chile oil or chile crisp in many well-stocked grocery stores, Asian markets, and online. My three favorite brands of chile crisp are FLYBYJING, Lao Gan Ma, and Momofuku (affiliate links).
If you don’t have this ingredient, just use any neutral-flavored cooking oil like grapeseed oil, avocado oil, vegetable oil, etc.
Stir the slurry
Remember to give the cornstarch slurry a good stir before you pour it into the sauce. The cornstarch tends to settle at the bottom of the bowl as it sits.
Because tofu is the star of the show here, we want to prepare it the right way! These tips will help:
How to slice tofu into squares
Cut the tofu block in half vertically. Then flip one slab around and cut crosswise into squares.
Season with salt
Remember to sprinkle a little salt over the tops of the tofu squares before or during the cooking process. This infuses each piece with some extra flavor before they’re simmered in the braising liquid.
Use the right pan
A good-quality nonstick pan is best when pan-frying tofu. This tofu is less likely to stick this way, which means it will have an easier time forming a golden brown crust.
A wok also works well if you know how to use it! Refer to my Tofu Stir Fry recipe for helpful tips.
Frying the tofu in hot oil means there’s potential for splatter. Stand back from the stove and keep a lid handy just in case.
Frequently Asked Questions
I recommend using extra firm tofu. It contains very little water, which means it’ll hold up better when pan-frying.
Some braised tofu recipes are made with even softer varieties, like medium or silken tofu. Once fried, this kind of tofu will be crispy on the outside and very soft on the inside. However, it will fall apart if not handled very carefully. Use at your own risk!
Yes, but the texture will be not as good in my opinion. If you opt for either of these methods, don’t slice the tofu too thin or else it will dry out and become rubbery in the oven/air fryer.
You can learn how to bake tofu in my Marinated Tofu recipe.
My favorite way to serve this is over a bowl of white or brown rice (I cook it in my Instant Pot while the tofu cooks) with a side of simple green veggies, like steamed broccoli tossed with sesame seeds or sautéed bok choy.
For sure! Feel free to double the amount of veggies. If doing that, increase the water to ¾ cup (180 mL).
Let the sauce-coated tofu cool completely before storing it in an airtight container. Keep it in the fridge for 4 to 5 days.
To reheat, place the tofu back in a frying pan over medium-low heat until warmed through.
If you love this Chinese Braised Tofu, please give it a rating and review below! And of course, tag me with your remakes on Instagram!
- 1 (14-ounce/400g) block of extra-firm tofu, drained
- Kosher salt
- 2 to 3 tablespoons neutral-flavored oil of choice
- 1 tablespoon oil from Chinese chile oil or chile crisp (sub neutral-flavored oil) (see Note 1)
- 4 scallions, sliced on a bias in into 1-inch pieces (reserve dark green tops for garnish)
- 1- inch piece fresh ginger, finely chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 cup (120g) thinly sliced red bell peppers (see Note 2 for more options)
- 3 tablespoons Chinese “light soy sauce” (or regular store soy sauce) (see Note 3)
- 2 tablespoons organic brown sugar (see Note 4)
- 1 heaping tablespoon Chinese black vinegar (see Note 5 for subs)
- ¼ to ½ teaspoon Sichuan chile flakes (or 1 dried red chile torn in half; optional, omit for mild heat)
- ½ teaspoon Chinese five spice powder
- ⅛ teaspoon white pepper (optional)
- ½ cup (120 mL) water
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch or arrowroot powder
- A few drizzles of toasted sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon toasted white sesame seeds
- Reserved scallion greens, sliced thinly on a bias
- ~ 3 cups (360g) of cooked white rice or brown rice
- Slice the tofu in half vertically. Gently press down on each slab with a towel to remove some water. Flip each slab around and slice crosswise into squares ⅓” to ½” (1 cm) thick. Arrange tofu squares on a cutting board. Cover with a thin dish towel or a few paper towels. Cover with a cookbook to press. Meanwhile, slice the aromatics.
- Remove the towel from the tofu. If the tofu appears still wet, gently dab down on the squares with a dry towel. Sprinkle the top side of each tofu square with a bit of salt to season.
- Heat a 12-inch nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat for 2 minutes, then add the oil and heat for 30 seconds. Meanwhile, line the cutting board from step 1 with a few paper towels.
- Pile the tofu in a slotted spoon or spider tool. Carefully add the tofu to the hot oil, arranging it in a single layer. Move the tofu around in the oil to evenly coat and cook on one side for 5 to 8 minutes, or until golden brown on the bottom. Use a thin spatula to flip and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until the bottom is also golden brown.
- While the tofu cooks, combine the braising liquid ingredients together in a jar; seal and shake it up; or add to a bowl and whisk together.
- When the tofu is golden brown and crisp on both sides, transfer the squares to the towel-lined board to absorb excess oil. Sprinkle with a couple pinches of salt.
- Return the frying pan to the stove and wipe out excess oil. Add the 1 tablespoon chile oil or oil from chile crisp (or regular oil) and heat over medium-high. Once hot, add the scallion whites/greens, garlic, and ginger, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, tossing frequently, until fragrant. Add the vegetables and cook until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes, shaking the pan and stir-frying as you go.
- Pour in the braising liquid. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 5 minutes, or until thickened a bit.
- Meanwhile, thinly slice the reserved scallion greens on a hard bias. Stir the cornstarch into the water and whisk well. After the 5 minutes, add the cornstarch slurry into the pan and whisk until it thickens a bit but not too much, 45 to 60 seconds.
- Add the fried tofu into the sauce and use a silicone spatula to coat the tofu in the sauce. Reduce heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has thickened into a sauce that sticks to the tofu. Take off the heat and cool for a few minutes.
- Serve tofu over rice. Drizzle lightly with toasted sesame oil and garnish with sesame seeds and scallion greens.
- I LOVE using Chinese chile oil or the oil from a jar of chile crisp in place of regular cooking oil here for a burst of umami and a subtle heat. You can find chile oil or chile crisp in many well-stocked grocery stores, Asian markets, and online. My three favorite brands of chile crisp are FLYBYJING, Lao Gan Ma, and Momofuku (affiliate links). If you don’t have it, just use the neutral-flavored cooking oil you used for frying the tofu.
- You can sub bell peppers with any small chopped quick-cooking veggie. Good options are chopped baby bok choy, shredded Napa cabbage, and snap peas or snow peas.
- If you have Chinese light soy sauce, use that. Otherwise, standard grocery store soy sauce (e.g., Kikkoman, San J, etc.) is totally fine. You can sub the sugar with maple syrup but the sauce will be slightly thinner.
- If you’re strictly gluten-free, you can use Shaoxing wine (Chinese cooking wine) instead, as most Chinese black vinegars are fermented with grains. If you don’t have that, use rice vinegar. It doesn’t have the same depth of flavor as black vinegar but will still be tasty.
Recipe: Nisha Vora / Rainbow Plant Life | Photography: Megan Morello