I probably wouldn’t have connected the words “tofu” and “terrific” twenty or thirty years ago. Before I’d been exposed to the wide array of Asian cuisine, tofu was merely a meat substitute that I considered bland and boring.
Now I know that tofu can be a canvas upon which culinary art is made—though if you’re lucky enough to have a place making fresh tofu in your area, it can be delicious on its own. Even if you don’t have such a store, you can enjoy store-bought tofu simply, as I do, by cutting a little square and topping it with dashi and shio konbu. (Okay, you’ll need a good Japanese store to find shio konbu, or you can ask a Japanese friend to bring some back from Japan.)
But go to a variety of Asian restaurants, as I do in Seattle, and you’ll discover tons of ways to try tofu. Chefs top it with exotic ingredients, drop it in hot pots, and even fry it to put on sandwiches. The texture lends itself well to experimentation, and it is a sponge in absorbing flavors.
Read on to see 10 terrific tofu dishes, Asian-style, that you can try in the Seattle area.
One of my favorite dishes in the world, and one I make weekly when I’m home for its quickness and addictive deliciousness, is ma po tofu. It’s so easy to prepare that you should avoid the boxed mix. And don’t accept brown gravy, as ma po tofu is best when it’s a brilliant red color, with lots of heat. For that, I recommend Bamboo Garden in Bellevue, where the Ma Po Tofu ($9.95) is fire engine red and full of flaming heat. The silky soft tofu is offset with little bits of ground pork and tiny slivers of green onion. Fermented black beans give some tangy flavor; otherwise it’s a ma la affair with numbing Sichuan peppercorns and spicy chili peppers. Ma po tofu is the perfect dish to put over white rice.
Sticking with Sichuanese style, perhaps the best thing on the menu at Szechuan 99 in Lynnwood is the Mince Pork with Bean Curd ($8.99). The menu touts the house-made bean curd as “very very soft and tasty,” and that’s no lie. You get a similar spiciness as with the ma po tofu, but here the tofu is seductively soft, a melt-in-your-mouth affair. Other varieties of the dish come with chicken, “special beef,” “emperor fish,” and “crystal prawns.”
Northwest Tofu is a store and restaurant that showcases its freshly made tofu and other tofu products. Here you’ll find Simmered Tofu Noodles, Salt & Pepper Tofu, and Dry Tofu with Fish, to name a few. But if you’re looking for a little dessert, I recommend the Tofu Pudding with Peanuts or Red Beans ($3.00). Served warm or cold, the pudding presents the freshness of the tofu being made before your eyes. Topped with just a little sugar syrup, the sweet version is a refreshing way to end a meal. Alternately, you can try the Salty Tofu Pudding, with soy sauce and often served with green onions, and perhaps chilis or pickled vegetables.
In the same area of Little Saigon you’ll find a preponderance of Vietnamese delis, typically in little strip malls, serving banh mi (and more) at bargain prices. There are many good ones, though one of my favorites is the Saigon Vietnam Deli. My go-to sandwich is BBQ Pork, but at times I’m tempted by the Tofu Banh Mi ($2.50). The tofu is soy-marinated and fried, then bathes in more sauce before it sits softly on a crusty baguette. Daikon and carrot slices contribute crunchiness, with cilantro lending its charm. The deli worker will usually ask just one question, to which you should answer yes: “Jalapeños?”
Speaking of sandwiches, Katsu Burger has a Miso Honey Tofu Burger ($6.95) that will make you a believer in tofu. All right, as with the banh mi, I’d still recommend pork as the first choice (after all, that’s what katsu is, and it’s great at Katsu Burger), but if you’re vegetarian, avoiding pork for religious reasons, or looking for a change of pace, this burger will surprise you. It features organic, medium-firm tofu that’s brilliantly fried and topped with a miso honey mustard sauce that’s sweet and savory—and perfectly balanced. As with the other burgers, there’s also shredded cabbage, tomatoes, red onion, and pickles. (Those nori fries, by the way, are an irresistible side.)
Kisaku is a favorite place for a more traditional Japanese preparation of tofu: Agedashi Tofu ($5.50). The tofu is dusted with katakuriko (potato starch) and deep-fried for a slightly crisp texture. The tofu sits in happo dashi soup (happo means eight, but denotes that the dashi has many uses) and is topped with grated daikon and finely sliced green onion. This dish is a staple at izakayas and many of the sushi restaurants in Seattle, but Kisaku’s is exemplary due to the delicate frying and fantastic flavor of the dashi.
Tofu is the ubiquitous non-meat substitution in so many Asian restaurants. But one place where it really shines is at Araya’s Place, a vegan restaurant where the Avocado Curry ($13.95) shines the spotlight on the ingredient by doing it two ways. Oh, the avocado is there (along with seitan), and it’s surprisingly delicious in this curry preparation, but what impresses me most is how both the soft tofu and the fried tofu provide textural contrast in the dish. Both types of tofu make appearances in many other dishes at Araya’s, but this is my favorite.
With winter’s arrival comes my interest in hot pots of all sorts. When I really want to warm up, I like to go to a Korean restaurant like Hae-Nam Kalbi & Calamari in Shoreline for Soon Doo-Bu Jigae ($7.95 lunch, $8.95 dinner). Pay attention to the activity on the table, as that’s a fun part of the experience. First comes the banchan—lots of little dishes (like kimchi, pickles, and small fried fish) that accompany the main dish. Soon after, the jigae arrives, bubbling and steaming in its earthenware pot, along with rice. Gochujang, gochu garu, or both bring life to the soft tofu stew, which comes with kimchi, mushrooms, seafood, beef, or pork, and you can request a raw egg to crack into the boiling cauldron.
If you’re seeking pungent flavors, Silky Tofu with Aged Duck Egg ($4.95) at Facing East in Bellevue will be right up your alley. You get a block of tofu topped with century egg, cilantro, and fuzzy and fluffy pork sung that’s earthy and slightly sweet. There’s a sauce made with “seafood sauce” (a.k.a. hoisin sauce), soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, and oil. All of the flavors combine to create a dish that’s a little funky and quite fabulous.
If you want to go really funky, order one of the stinky tofu dishes at Henry’s Taiwan. Stinky Tofu with Garlic Kimchi ($5.95) is sure to stay on your breath longer than you’d like. You’ll smell it long before it hits your table, as the tofu is brined in a fermentation process that gives it the tell-tale, pungent odor. Lightly fried, the cubes match well with the crisp cabbage.
Even better is Henry’s Ma La Pietan Stinky Tofu ($6.95). This preparation has century egg, green onions, crushed peanuts, and Sichuan spice, which includes some numbing Sichuan peppercorns. It’s simply delicious, with the tofu slightly crisp but still smooth and silky inside. And still stinky. Henry wishes he could make it stinkier, but the neighbors would complain. Your neighbors inside the restaurant won’t complain, though. They’ll probably already have an order on their table.
(Originally published at Serious Eats on December 12.)