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. It takes less than 20 minutes to make!
A Sichuan classic
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 dishes 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 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 flavor to penetrate into the tofu pieces.
In the original version, fatty pork slices are used for extra flavor. I replace them with dried shiitake mushroom to make it entirely vegetarian and vegan friendly. But the taste is not compromised I promise!
The ingredients needed for this recipe include tofu, shiitake mushrooms, fresh chilli, scallions, garlic, Sichuan chilli bean paste, dark soy sauce, cornstarch, neutral cooking oil, salt and sugar.
Sichuan chili bean paste (aka spicy Doubanjiang/辣豆瓣酱) is a fundamental condiment of Sichuan Cuisine. It can be found in many classic dishes, e.g. Twice Cooked Pork, Sichuan Boiled Beef, etc. The image above shows my favourite variety “Pixian Douban/郫县豆瓣“.
🛎 Substitute: Although there isn’t a replacement ingredient for Sichuan chili bean paste, you may use two alternatives for this recipe: Pickled Chili Garlic Sauce or Black Bean Sauce (the spicy version).
You may also use similar condiments found in your local shop. But be aware that you might need to adjust the quantity as the saltiness of each sauce varies.
How to choose tofu
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.
Option 1: Shallow-fry
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.
Option 2: Air-fry
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 color. I suggest you have a check at 10 mins as your air fryer may work a little differently.
Braise the tofu
Step 1: Fry the sauce
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 teaspoons of oil to a wok/pan and fry garlic and Sichuan chili bean paste until fragrant.
Step 2: Simmer in mushroom water
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.
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.
🛎 TIP: “Why do you use the mushroom water?” You may ask. Because it has extracted the aromatic flavor from dried shiitake mushroom which elevates the umami taste of the dish. If you replace dried shiitake with fresh ones, replace the mushroom soaking water with vegetable stock if available.
Step 3: Thicken the sauce
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.
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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 tablespoon Sichuan chilli 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 teaspoon dark soy sauce
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 4 fresh chili pepper - cut into chunks
- 1 teaspoon tapioca starch/corn starch, mix with 3 teaspoon 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 teaspoon 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).
NUTRITION DISCLOSURE: Nutritional information on this website is provided as a courtesy to readers. It should be considered estimates. Please use your own brand nutritional values or your preferred nutrition calculator to double check against our estimates.