Braised tofu tastes amazing when made in Sichuan style. Chewy outside and soft inside, the tofu has a spongy texture that helps to soak up all the flavour from the sauce.
A home-style dish with amazing flavour
Today’s braised tofu is based on a classic Sichuan dish called Jiā Cháng Dòu Fù (家常豆腐) which literally means home-style tofu. As its name suggests, it’s quick and simple to make. But the flavour of the dish is beyond compare. That is one reason why it often appears on restaurant menus.
The fried then braised tofu pieces soak up all the flavour this dish offers: spicy, aromatic, garlicky and umami. For people who have a misconception of tofu being bland and boring, this is definitely a great dish to try. Believe me! Tofu has remained one of the most popular ingredients in Chinese cuisine for thousands of years for a very good reason.
It’s very simple to make
It takes two simple steps to cook braised tofu:
- Use either shallow-frying or air-frying method to transform white, firm tofu into golden, crispy pieces with a spongy texture inside.
- Briefly braise the fried tofu in a well-seasoned liquid to allow the flavour to penetrate into the tofu pieces.
In the original version, fatty pork slices are used for extra flavour. I replace them with dried shiitake mushroom to make it entirely vegetarian and vegan friendly. But the taste is not compromised I promise!
What type of tofu to use
Different from Mapo Tofu and Garlic Sauce Tofu which require medium to soft textured tofu, Sichuan style braised tofu works better when made with firm tofu. In Chinese, this type of tofu has various names: Bei Dou Fu (北豆腐), Lao Dou Fu (老豆腐), Lu Shui Dou Fu (卤水豆腐), etc.
Firm tofu has a lower water content than medium, soft or silken tofu. Irregular holes are clearly visible in every part of the block. It feels pretty solid and has little give when pressed. Yet, I wouldn’t recommend extra firm tofu (often found in vegan section in mainstream supermarkets rather than Chinese stores) which is too dry and crumbles easily.
Compared to softer types of tofu, firm tofu delivers a more pronounced soybean flavour which I appreciate very much. It’s also less fragile when handling, thus it’s perfect for novice home cooks who are unfamiliar with this ingredient.
In today’s dish, tofu is usually served in triangle-shaped pieces. You can firstly slice it into squares, then cut it diagonally. The thickness of each piece should be around 2cm (¾ inch). Before frying, make sure to pat dry each piece with kitchen paper to reduce splashing.
The traditional recipe for Sichuan braised tofu involves deep-frying which is a cooking method I tend to avoid unless it’s absolutely necessary. I’ve tested two less greasy alternatives: shallow-frying and air-frying. I’m happy to say that they both work perfectly.
How to shallow-fry tofu
For shallow-frying, you may use either a flat-bottomed wok or a frying pan (preferably a deep one as it can be used for the braising step later).
- Add oil that’s enough to cover half of the thickness of the tofu pieces.
- Heat the oil over high heat. Use the tip of a chopstick to test the temperature. If bubbles appear around it immediately, the oil is hot enough.
- Gently slide in the tofu pieces one by one. Leave to fry both sides over medium heat. It takes me about 7 mins to fry them to a golden colour.
- Remove the tofu and lay them over kitchen paper to absorb any excess oil.
How to air-fry tofu
If you have an air-fryer, it’s less effort (and much less oil) to fry these tofu pieces. Here is how it’s done:
- Firstly, preheat your air-fryer at 200°C/390°F for 3 mins.
- While waiting, prepare the tofu by spraying a thin layer of oil over both sides. If you don’t have a sprayer, pour a little oil into a plate, dip in the tofu pieces one by one and coat them evenly.
- When the air-fryer is ready, put tofu in a single layer over the crisper tray inside the air fryer. Do not overcrowd as you’d want the side of each tofu slice to be nicely golden. Fry in two batches if necessary.
- It takes me about 12 mins to fry the tofu to the desired colour. I suggest you have a check at 10 mins as your air fryer may work a little differently.
How to braise the dish
If you’ve shallow-fried the tofu, use the same wok/pan to braise the dish. Pour out most of the oil and leave just a little to fry minced garlic and Sichuan chili bean paste.
If you’ve air-fried the tofu, add about 2 tsp of oil to a wok/pan and fry garlic and Sichuan chili bean paste until fragrant.
A: Made of fermented broad beans and chili pepper, Sichuan chilli bean paste is a fundamental condiment of Sichuan cuisine found in many classic dishes, e.g. Mapo Tofu, Sichuan Boiled Beef, etc. You can find some tips on how to source it in my post on Spicy Lotus Root Stir-fry (The image above shows my favourite variety).
A: For this dish, Pickled Chili Garlic Sauce or Spicy Black Bean Sauce can be a good substitute. The finished dish would taste different but still delicious. You may also use similar condiments found in Chinese shops. But be aware that you might need to adjust the quantity as the saltiness of each sauce varies.
Then add dried shiitake mushroom (rehydrated and sliced), about 250ml (1 cup) water in which the mushroom was rehydrated, dark soy sauce and sugar. Bring it to a full boil then put in fried tofu and chili pepper. Cover with a lid and leave to braise over low heat for 2 minutes or so.
🛎 Q: Why do you use the “mushroom water”?
A: Because it has extracted the aromatic flavour from dried shiitake mushroom which elevates the umami taste of the dish. When pouring in, remember to discard the solid bits at the bottom of the bowl.
🛎 Q: Can I use fresh shiitake mushroom (or other mushrooms)?
A: Yes, you can. In this case, you may replace “mushroom water” with vegetable stock if available.
During this braising process, most of the liquid (and the flavour) will be absorbed by the fried tofu. If you’d like to have more sauce (e.g. for pouring over the rice when serving), please feel free to add a little more water if the dish appears dry.
Finally, pour in the mixture of starch and water to thicken the sauce (stir well beforehand as the starch tends to sink to the bottom). Garnish with finely chopped scallions before dishing out.
Braised Tofu Sichuan Style (家常豆腐)
- 400 g tofu, about 14oz, see note 1
- Neural cooking oil, for shallow frying or air-frying
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1½ tbsp Sichuan chili bean paste, see note 2 for substitutes
- 4 large dried shiitake mushroom, rehydrated and sliced
- 250 ml water (in which shiitake mushroom is soaked), about 1 cup
- ½ tsp dark soy sauce
- ½ tsp sugar
- 4 fresh chili pepper, cut into chunks
- 1 tsp tapioca starch/corn starch, mix with 3 tsp water
- 1 stalk scallions, finely chopped
Fry the tofu
- Slice the tofu into triangle pieces, about 2 cm (¾ inch) thick. Pat dry their surface with kitchen paper.
- Option 1: Shallow-frying: In a flat-bottomed wok or a frying pan (preferably a deep one as it’ll be used for the braising step later), heat up oil enough to cover about half the thickness of the tofu. Test with the tip of a chopstick. If bubbles appear around it, the oil is hot enough. Gently slide in the tofu pieces one by one. Turn down the heat to medium and leave to fry. Flip over once the first side turns golden. When both sides are done, transfer to a plate lined with kitchen paper to absorb excess oil.
- Option 2: Air-frying: Preheat the air-fryer at 200°C/390°F for 3 mins. Spray a thin layer of oil over both sides of the tofu pieces. Then put them in a single layer over the crisper tray inside the air fryer (you might need to fry in two batches). Leave to fry for about 12 mins until they become golden (the time required may vary so check at 10 mins).
Braise the dish
- Pour out most of the oil leaving just a little in the wok/pan (If the tofu is air-fried in the last step, add 2 tsp of oil to a wok/pan). Fry garlic and Sichuan chili bean paste over medium heat until fragrant.
- Add shiitake mushroom, the mushroom water, dark soy sauce and sugar. Bring it to a boil.
- Put in the fried tofu and chili pepper. Stir around then cover with a lid. Leave to braise over low heat for 2 mins. Add a little more water if needed.
- Pour in the starch water. Give everything a quick stir then garnish with scallions. Dish out and serve immediately.
- It takes very little time to cook this dish if you have fried tofu at hand. So I recommend you fry a big batch of tofu when time permits and store it in the fridge or freezer for later use.
- Fried tofu can be kept in the fridge for up to three days, or in the freezer for up to three months (defrost in the fridge before cooking).