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Tofu can be a delicious comfort food, if you know how to make it. From katsu curry to tofu doughnuts, these soul-satisfying dishes are the culinary equivalent of a warm embrace.
Whether you’re a total pro at cooking plant-based dishes or you’re experimenting with meat-free Mondays, there’s a good chance that tofu has featured in your meal rotation. These days, the soya-based bean curd is enjoying a long overdue renaissance; but while many of us have enjoyed its sweet flavour in soups, salads and stir fries, heartier tofu dishes are curiously thin on the ground.
One person who is extremely well-placed to expand our horizons is Bonnie Chung. The food writer, entrepreneur and former chef, who founded the brand Miso Tasty in 2014, has given the plant-based protein a total makeover in her new cookbook Tofu Tasty: Imaginative Tofu Recipes For Every Day. Filled with over 60 vibrant recipes that explore the different types of tofu, its essential role in Asian cuisine and the best techniques for cooking it, Chung proves there’s no limit to tofu’s culinary potential – we just need to know how to use it.
With autumn just around the corner and thoughts turning to comfort food, we figured there was no better time to go in search of tofu recipes that feel like a warm embrace. Happily, we’ve three hearty recipes, courtesy of Chung, that make tofu the star of the show.
First up, a recipe that Chung describes as the “mother of all comfort dishes”: katsu curry. This is no traditional katsu, though, but a supremely tasty veggie version which takes slabs of tofu coated in panko breadcrumbs and tops them with pools of melted cheese.
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For days when dinner is really the only thing that can salvage the day, defer straight to the Korean tofu stew. This nourishing broth summons the healing power of Korean cuisine, plus the pleasure of diving for kimchi, seafood and silken tofu takes dinnertime to the realm of treasure hunt.
Lastly, we promised you comfort food, and the tofu doughnuts with miso caramel definitely deliver. We hardly need to tell you that these deep-fried golden balls of dough are utterly moreish – just know that they’re very difficult to share.
Bonnie says: “The mother of all comfort dishes. I first tried this on a particularly stressful day rushing around Tokyo, and it arrived as if sent from heaven. We stumbled across a tiny katsu curry booth within a station bookshop. The staff appeared like a mirage, offering us vegetable katsu curry with melted cheese on top. This recipe arrived in my hour of need, and I am sharing it in profound gratitude. You could say that the cheese is optional, but, for me, it is absolutely essential.”
For the tofu
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 100g panko crumbs
- 400g firm tofu, drained for 20 minutes, pressed and cut into 2cm rectangular slabs
- vegetable oil, for frying
- rice and vegetables, to serve
- 100g grated cheddar, or other hard cheese
For the curry sauce
- 40ml vegetable oil
- 1 carrot, roughly chopped
- 1 large onion, roughly chopped
- 44g medium curry powder
- 85g caster sugar
- 10g sea salt flakes
- 15g cornflour
- 2 tsp light soy sauce
- 200ml water
- 2½ tsp tomato purée
- 2½ tsp white wine vinegar
- pinch of cayenne pepper
First make the sauce. In a large, heavy-based saucepan, heat up the oil for a few minutes before adding the carrot and onion. Stir-fry over a medium heat for 3–4 minutes until the vegetables begin to soften. Add 3 tbsp water and put the lid on.
In a mixing bowl, mix the curry powder, sugar, salt, cornflour, soy sauce and measured water and mix until smooth. Add it to the pan of vegetables, stirring vigorously to stop any lumps. Then add the tomato purée, vinegar and cayenne.
Reduce the heat to low and simmer the sauce for 5–10 minutes. It will thicken as you cook.
Put the eggs for the tofu in a shallow dish and the panko in another. Dip the tofu in the egg, then press the slabs into the panko until covered and sticking on all sides.
Heat enough oil in a frying pan to cover the base by 3mm. Add the tofu and fry for 3–4 minutes on each side or until golden, turning carefully with tongs. Preheat the grill to high.
When ready to serve, loosen up the curry sauce with 3–4 tbsp water, or until you are happy with the consistency. Distribute the tofu and sauce between ovenproof plates, sprinkle with the cheese, if using, and melt it under the hot grill. Serve with rice and vegetables.
You could also try different vegetables in the curry sauce, such as mushrooms or sweet potatoes. Instead of tofu, you could try chicken breast or white fish fillets.
Korean tofu stew
Bonnie says: “This kimchi-spiced tofu stew is a real Korean cuisine mainstay. Traditionally served in a dramatic iron hotpot or stone pot, it arrives bubbling like a cauldron, and looks much spicier than it really is. Called sundubu-jigae (‘soft tofu stew’), it is a deeply flavoured broth that weaves around silken tofu, other chunky ingredients such as kimchi, and seafood such as oysters and prawns. Enjoy it with white rice and other crunchy side dishes, such as stir-fried beansprouts.”
- 2 tbsp Korean chilli flakes (gochugaru)
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 tsp finely chopped or grated garlic
- 2 tsp light soy sauce
- 800ml vegetable stock or dashi (see recipe below)
- 1 tsp sea salt flakes
- 4 eggs
- 700g silken tofu, cut into rough chunks
- 100g oyster mushrooms or shimeji mushrooms
- 4 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked for 1–2 hours until fully hydrated, then drained and finely sliced
- 150g kimchi
- 2 spring onions, finely sliced on the diagonal
- 1 tbsp toasted sesame oil rice, to serve
For the dashi
- 10g kombu (dried kelp)
- 1 litre filtered or soft water
- 30g dried shiitake mushrooms
In a large, heavy-based saucepan, heat the Korean chilli flakes with the vegetable oil for 1 minute, then add the garlic and soy sauce.
Pour the stock into the pan and heat up for 2–3 minutes, then add the salt.
Gently crack the eggs one at a time into the pan to lightly poach them for 3 minutes, then add the tofu and all the mushrooms and simmer for a further 3 minutes. Finally add the kimchi.
Sprinkle the spring onions and toasted sesame oil on top, then serve with steamed rice.
Try swapping the vegetable stock for fish stock and adding seafood such as clams and prawns. Slices of bacon are also popular, for a richer broth.
Bonnie says: “Vegetarian Japanese stock is great to have on hand for enhancing many of the dishes in this book. It is a great swap in Asian food for classic vegetable stock for many reasons, but mostly because vegetable stock is based on a French mirepoix of ingredients, including quite distinctive flavours such as garlic and celery, which in some more subtle dishes – including miso soup – are too intrusive. There is also the advantage of not having added salt, which is in most instant vegetable stocks, so you can better control the seasoning of your dish.
There are a few ways to make dashi, but the most common uses kombu, a Japanese kelp. You can buy packs of dried powdered kombudashi from Asian stores or online; I always have packets at home if I don’t have time to make dashi. If you want to try the original fish-based Japanese dashi, which has a smokier flavour, search for katsuobushi instead.
Dashi making is not at all complicated, no more difficult than making a coffee in a press or tea in a teapot. My recipe includes shiitake mushrooms for a deeper, sweeter flavour and increased umami levels.”
Makes 1 litre
Kombu comes in large sheets that require cutting down to size. Once you have weighed the amount of kombu that you need, I recommend that you make some extra cuts into the pieces with scissors to increase the surface area and help the flavour to release into the water.
Pour the measured filtered water into a large bowl or saucepan and add the kombu and shiitake mushrooms. Cover with clingfilm or a lid and leave for at least 2 hours or overnight.
Pour the mixture into a saucepan, if it is not already in one, and remove the mushrooms. Simmer over a medium-low heat until just before boiling, then remove the kombu. It is really important that you don’t boil the kombu, or it loses its delicate flavours. My friend Tim Anderson, of Nanban Japanese restaurant in London, recommends toasting kombu over an open flame for a deeper flavour before soaking it.
The dashi can be kept in the refrigerator, covered, or in a closed bottle, for 3 days, or in the freezer for up to 2 months.
To make katsuobushi, which is more common in Japanese cooking and includes dried, smoked fish, follow the steps above, but add 10g katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) as soon as the saucepan has been taken off the heat. Allow it to steep in the dashi for 5 minutes, then return the pan to the heat and simmer for 4 minutes. Finally, strain the dashi by placing 2 sheets of kitchen paper in a fine-meshed sieve and pouring the dashi through it. Use immediately, or bottle and refrigerate for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 1 month.
Tofu doughnuts with miso caramel
Bonnie says: “I’m not going to lie, these are very naughty. Inspired by my love for ricotta doughnuts – light and fluffy and a tiny bit tart – these tofu doughnuts have a sweet and tangy flavour that really hits the spot.
The miso caramel is optional… but if you’re going to the effort of making doughnuts, why hold back?”
For the doughnuts
- vegetable oil, for deep-frying and oiling
- 275g firm tofu, drained for 20 minutes, pressed (see pages 14–15), then mashed
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- finely grated zest of 1 lemon
- 2 tbsp nutritional yeast flakes
- 1 tsp sea salt flakes
- 3 eggs, lightly beaten
- 100g caster sugar
- 275g plain flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- golden caster sugar, for dusting
For the miso caramel (optional)
- 125ml water
- 300g granulated sugar
- 125g double cream
- 1½ tbsp white miso paste
Prepare a very large saucepan in which you will be deep-frying. Fill it with oil to come no more than one-third of the way up the sides and set it on to heat.
It needs to reach 170°C. As always when deep-frying, be very careful and do not leave the kitchen or take a telephone call.
Layer a tray with kitchen paper (paper towels) for receiving your piping-hot doughnuts.
In a bowl, mix together the mashed tofu, lemon juice and zest, nutritional yeast, salt, beaten eggs and sugar.
Sift in the flour and baking powder, then fold together, taking care not to overwork the dough.
Oil an ice-cream scoop and make 25g balls of the dough. Drop 3 balls of batter into the hot oil and fry for 4–5 minutes, until golden brown. Turn occasionally to ensure the doughnuts are golden all over.
Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and place on the paper-lined tray to blot off excess oil, then dust with golden caster sugar. Repeat to cook and coat all the doughnuts.
If you are making the miso caramel, heat the water and sugar in a heavy- based pan. Don’t be tempted to stir it, or you might crystallise the caramel. Once the caramel is a dark golden brown, turn off the heat and leave to cool for a few minutes before slowly adding the cream and miso paste (be careful, as it may spit at you).
Serve the doughnuts with the caramel, dipping them into it, or drizzling it over, as you prefer.
The caramel can be stored in a refrigerator for up to a week. It is great on cakes and also drizzled on ice cream.
Extracted from Tofu Tasty: Imaginative Tofu Recipes For Every Day by Bonnie Chung (£14.99, Pavilion Books), out now
Photography: Yuki Sugiura.
Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.