Growing up in a part-Japanese family, tofu was a regular part of our meals at home. It wasn’t something that we ate only on Meatless Mondays or when someone was on a health kick. It held court as a side dish or element of a larger meal. Singular in its creamy virtues, it was there, above all, to contribute texture and flavor.
So until a few years ago, it hadn’t quite dawned on me that many people think of tofu as something that’s only the preserve of vegetarians—at best, a substitute for meat. One of my roommates at the time saw me making mapo tofu in our kitchen, which pairs tofu and ground meat in a chile-based sauce. She thought it was pretty subversive that I was eating the two apparently conflicting ingredients together.
But delve deep into Asian cuisine, and you’ll find that tofu has many applications, both vegetarian and non-, and is appreciated as an essential ingredient across the board. It does feature prominently in vegetarian Buddhist diets, for sure, but it firmly has a place in mainstream Asian food culture and beyond.
So whether you’re a strict vegetarian or a hard-core meat lover, here are nine recipes where tofu really shines. They’re proof, once and for all, that tofu’s anything but a placeholder.
If you want to convince a meat lover that tofu is the bee’s knees, this is the dish. The crumbly cubes of bean curd and bits of ground beef get coated in a slick chile sauce that is based around douban jiang, a paste that could best be described as a fiery, umami-packing relative of miso.
Buddha’s delight has long been one of my Chinese takeout go-tos. But the first time I tried making it at home, it suddenly gained a whole new dimension. In its hodgepodge of Asian vegetables, I often find myself seeking out the squares of tofu, which soak up the dish’s savory juices.
You might be used to saag with cubes of cheesy paneer, but tofu does equally well, without the dairy. And on the plus side, you can find tofu in most supermarkets these days, whereas paneer often demands a trip to the Indian market, or your own cheesemaking virtuosity.
If your idea of tofu is a sludgy, squishy mush, this recipe will prove otherwise. In this riff on latkes, extra-firm tofu is grated into delicate wisps that get golden-fried until crisp.
5. Curry Laksa
Curry laksa is a noodle soup that comes with a long list of toppings. But in my opinion, the fried tofu puffs are the most indispensable. They absorb the broth beneath their loose skin, carrying aromatic lemongrass- and curry-scented bursts of flavor.
Bibimbap can be made with meat, but I actually find it more satisfying when it’s vegetarian. Tofu and other additions like mushrooms and hearty greens push it toward a balancing act of earthy, vegetal flavors, tied together by a coating of spicy chile sauce.
Tofu can work its magic in dishes from beyond Asia, too. It loves spice and a good sauce, making it a natural match for Mexican flavors in tacos and more.
General Tso's isn't just about the sauce. It's also about the crackly, crispy texture of the nuggets beneath. Lightly fried tofu practically has that crunch built in, which is not something you're going to get from chicken without having to dredge and bread it in flour.
Like baked potatoes and sandwich rolls, tofu can get stuffed, too. These Indonesian pockets are fired on the grill, for a smoky, charred exterior that playfully contrasts with their tangy, tamarind-laced filling.
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.