At the Sunday Asian farmers market in Sacramento (around 5th Street, between X Street & Broadway), you can find freshly made tofu from local Chinese tofu makers (such as Hing Wong Soy). They sell many styles of soy products, such as silken tofu (豆腐花), fried tofu (炸豆腐), soy milk (豆漿), and a very pressed style of firm tofu (白豆腐乾).
This spicy tofu recipe is something I created on a weeknight when I wanted to make a quick dinner using the firm tofu I purchased at the farmers market. It is spicy, tangy, rich with coconut flavor, and easy to make. Pair this up with a side of grains and vegetables, and you’ll have a meal in about 30 minutes.
HOW TO MAKE SPICY TOFU WITH COCONUT SAUCE
TYPE OF TOFU USED IN THIS RECIPE
As I stated above, I am using a very pressed style of tofu for this recipe. This style of tofu might be called “firm tofu,” or “super firm tofu” depending on the tofu maker. Hing Wong Soy, where I usually get my tofu, calls it “firm tofu.”
If you’re familiar with House Foods products, they call this style of pressed tofu “super firm tofu.” Hodo Foods, a Bay Area-based soy company also sells a “firm tofu” that is very pressed and sold in vacuum-sealed packages. By the way, not all vacuum-sealed and shrink wrapped tofu products will work. Make sure the tofu feels dense enough when you give it a squeeze.
The beauty about this style of tofu is that you don’t need to press it before pan frying. The tofu is so dense that there is barely any liquid trapped inside the block of tofu. So when you pan fry the tofu straight out the package, you’ll get tofu with crisp edges. It’s great for stir fries too because the tofu won’t crumble as you cook it.
If you can only find extra-firm tofu at your grocery store, you can use it for this recipe. Just drain the tofu and wrap the tofu block with a layer of paper towels or muslin cloth. Place the wrapped block of tofu on a plate and weigh it down with a stack of plates or a small pan to press the tofu. Let it sit for about 20 minutes.
PAN FRY TOFU
Slice the tofu into 1-inch cubes and then pan fry them in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat. I like pan frying the tofu because it creates more textures on the tofu pieces–you’re not just biting into a soft block of tofu. I also use the pan frying process as an opportunity to season the tofu with some salt. I like pan frying tofu in a non-stick pan to ensure that the tofu doesn’t stick to the pan.
Pan fry the sides of the tofu until golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. The first side may take a little longer as the pan is still heating up. I usually pan fry just 4 sides of the tofu cubes. However, for the photographs in this post, I pan fried all 6 sides.
INGREDIENTS FOR SAUCE
To give the sauce rich flavor and creaminess, I used coconut milk. I recommend using full-fat canned coconut milk because it is more flavorful. However, you can use canned lite coconut milk. I don’t recommend using refrigerated coconut milk beverages because they’re too runny.
For spice, I used sambal oelek (also spelled sambal ulek) from Huy Fong Foods. Sambal is a spicy relish or paste made of peppers that originated in Indonesia. Over time, the use of sambal has spread to other Southeast Asian and South Asian countries, so you can find many versions of sambal. This sambal oelek from Huy Fong Foods delivers spice and tangy flavor, which is a great balance to the richness of the coconut milk. In small amounts, I don’t think the sambal oelek is too spicy, but the spice builds quickly. I like using 4 tablespoons of sambal oelek to give the dish a medium level of spice. Feel free to adjust the amount of sambal oelek to suit your tastes.
I also added red curry paste to the sauce to give it more bright flavor. I love using Thai Kitchen’s red curry paste because it’s an easy way to infuse flavor into my cooking. Although the label says that the curry paste is “hot,” I don’t find it spicy at all. Thai Kitchen’s red curry paste is vegan, but that might not be the case for all brands. I have seen some brands add shrimp for umami flavor, so double check the labels if you are vegan or are allergic to shellfish.
MAKE THE SAUCE
While pan frying the tofu, start making the sauce. Sauté thinly sliced shallots in coconut oil for a few minutes, until softened. Add the minced ginger, and sauté that until they start to turn fragrant. Then, add the coconut milk, sambal oelek, curry paste, coriander, salt, and sugar. The coriander is optional. I like using ground coriander because it adds earthy flavor.
Some of you might wonder why I’m adding sugar to the sauce. The sweetness of the sugar balances the vinegar flavor from the sambal oelek. Although I list brown sugar and coconut sugar in the recipe, you can use any type of sugar or liquid sweetener that you want.
After simmering the sauce for a few minutes, add the tofu pieces and stir to coat the tofu with the sauce.
Garnish the spicy tofu with sliced scallions, sesame seeds, and red pepper flakes, if you want.
The spicy tofu is great with a side of grains like jasmine rice, brown rice, or quinoa. I also recommend serving it with a side of vegetables, like blanched broccoli or roasted asparagus. If you are blanching vegetables, make sure to salt the water before boiling. Then, blanch the broccoli for about 2 to 3 minutes.
MORE TOFU RECIPES
MORE RECIPES THAT USE SAMBAL OELEK
Spicy Tofu with Creamy Coconut Sauce
- 20 to 22 ounces super firm or firm tofu, see note 1 for further explanation
- 2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil, any neutral oil works
- pinch kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil, can sub with any oil
- 1 cup thinly sliced shallots
- 2 tablespoons minced ginger
- 1 cup full-fat canned coconut milk, see note 3
- 3 to 4 tablespoons sambal oelek/ulek, depending on desired level of spice (see note 4)
- 4 teaspoons red curry paste, see note 5
- 1 1/2 teaspoons coconut or brown sugar, see note 6
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander, optional
- 1 teaspoon (4g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; 1/2 teaspoon if using table salt, add more salt if necessary
- When you remove the blocks of tofu from the package, the tofu should feel very dense. If the tofu has been sitting in a lot of liquid, pat the blocks of tofu with a towel. Then, slice the tofu into 1-inch cubes.
Pan Fry Tofu
- Heat a large non-stick pan with 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat. Transfer the tofu pieces to the pan. If you can’t fit all the tofu pieces at once, cook them in batches. Sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon of salt over the tofu.
- Pan fry the tofu until the bottom side is golden brown, about 3 minutes. Flip them over to another side and pan fry the tofu until golden brown. Sprinkle another 1/4 teaspoon of salt over the tofu pieces. I usually pan fry just 4 sides of the tofu, though I fried all 6 for the photos that you see in the post. Each time you flip the tofu over, sprinkle another 1/4 teaspoon of salt over the tofu, until you’ve sprinkled 1 teaspoon of kosher salt total.
- Once you’ve fried at least 4 sides of the tofu, turn off the heat.
Cook the Sauce
- Heat 2 tablespoons of coconut oil in a large skillet over medium to medium-low heat. Add the shallots and cook them for about 4 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent them from burning. The shallots should be quite soft at this stage. Next, add the minced ginger and cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute, until fragrant.
- Add the coconut milk, sambal oelek, red curry paste, coriander, salt, and sugar to the pan. Increase the heat to medium-high and let the sauce simmer for 3 to 4 minutes.
- Turn off the heat. Add the fried tofu to the pan and stir to coat the tofu pieces with the sauce. Transfer the tofu to a serving dish. Garnish with scallions, red pepper flakes, and toasted sesame seeds, if you like. Serve the tofu with jasmine rice and a side of vegetables like roasted asparagus or blanched broccoli.
- I used a very pressed style of tofu that doesn’t require pressing. House Foods calls it “super firm” tofu; Hodo and many local Chinese tofu makers usually call it “firm tofu.” The benefit of using this type of tofu is that you don’t need to press the tofu before pan frying. If you are using “super firm” tofu, I prefer using House Foods. I’ve seen “super firm tofu” sold in large 3x3x4-inch blocks, and the tofu tends to be chewier.
- Extra-firm tofu: If you are using extra-firm tofu, drain the tofu and wrap the tofu block with a layer of paper towels or muslin cloth. Place the wrapped block of tofu on a plate and weigh it down with a stack of plates or a small pan to press the tofu. Let it sit for about 20 minutes before slicing into 1-inch cubes.
- Full-fat canned coconut milk will yield a richer sauce with more flavor. If you want something lighter, you can use canned lite coconut milk. Here are some ideas on what to do with leftover coconut milk.
- I used Huy Fong’s sambal oelek, which can get quite spicy if you use a good amount of it. 3 tablespoons is medium-level spice; 4 tablespoons of it is verging on very spicy. Note that the spiciness of sambal oelek/ulek can vary across different brands. If you taste the sambal oelek/ulek and a small amount tastes quite spicy, I’d use 1 or 2 tablespoons.
- I used Thai Kitchen’s red curry paste for this recipe. Although the label states that the curry paste is “hot,” I don’t find it spicy at all. If you are not using Thai Kitchen’s red curry paste, taste the curry paste you have on hand and adjust the spice accordingly.
- You can also use sugar, honey (if you’re not vegan), maple syrup, or agave. Any kind of sweetener will work here.