Quick tip: Using tofu in bento-friendly recipes

Tofu is a great protein, especially useful for vegan or vegetarian, but also useful for lightening up meat based recipes. I use tofu in a number of recipes here, but I thought it would be useful to address how to deal with tofu when you’re using it for bento recipes.

Types of tofu

If you go to an Asian/Chinese or Japanese store, you might be confused by the variety of tofus on sale. For bentos you will want to stick to either the fried tofus and tofu products, which have a light brown exterior, or firm, extra firm or momen (momen means cotton) tofus. Tofus that are labeled silken, soft or hiyayakko, have far too much moisture content, and are suited for soups and for eating as-is with condiments. (Also see: Looking at tofu.)

Draining tofu

While fried tofu is lower in moisture content and can be used as-is, when you are using plain tofu for further cooking, you often need to drain off some of the moisture from it. This is particularly important when tofu is being used as a base for burgers and ‘meatballs’, such as in the green vegan burgers or tuna tofu miso burgers. Simply draining off the water the tofu block comes packed in is not enough. Here are three ways to drain off tofu moisture:

  • Traditional method: Put the block of tofu on a plate or other flat surface. Put another flat object, like a cutting board, on top of the tofu, and a light weight (like a can or a small bowl filled with water) on top. Let sit for 10 to 20 minutes, until the tofu block has shrunk to about half its original size. Wipe off any excess moisture with paper towels or clean kitchen towels.
  • Boiling method: Cut the tofu into chunks. Put the tofu in a pot of boiling water to cover, and boil for 2-3 minutes. Drain, and let rest in a colander until cool enough to handle. Gently squeeze out excess moisture by gathering up the tofu in paper towels or a clean kitchen towel.
  • Microwave method: This is the fastest way. Cut the tofu block in half lenghwise, and put on a microwave-safe plate. Microwave on HIGH, uncovered, for 2 minutes. Careful taking it out - it will be steaming hot! Drain in a colander until cool enough to handle, and squeeze out or wipe off excess moisture before proceeding.

By using one of these draining methods you can avoid soggy-burger syndrome!

Tofu safety

From the food safety point of view, you should really treat tofu as if it were raw fish, If you are packing tofu-based products into your bento, be sure that it is cooked through thoroughly. In addition, some Japanese bento cookbooks recommend avoiding tofu block + meat type dishes if the weather is very hot.

Finally, be absolutely sure you are getting fresh tofu! Tofu should never, ever smell funny or taste ‘off’ or sour.

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Water tub vs aseptic packaging?

For the fresh (non-fried) tofu, do you have a preference for the kind packed in a tub of water and refrigerated, or the sort that’s in an aseptic (shelf-stable) box? I find I prefer the former but don’t know which would be best in your recipes. The kind packed in water and kept cool seems to have a more firm consistency than the aseptically-packaged kind.

I always buy the kind that

I always buy the kind that needs refrigeration that’s packed in water, never the shelf-stable kind, whether I buy from a Chinese store or a Japanese store. The shelf-stable kind (e.g. Morinaga Tofu) just tastes wrong to me.

Yes, I am confused.

“If you go to an Asian/Chinese or Japanese store, you might be confused by the variety of …”
…by the variety of everything! I am like a deer in headlights when I go to an Asian store. We have a great store in Seattle (many of them, actually) but I am l-o-s-t when I go in. I need an encyclopedic guide to Asian food, with photos, and a map. My only hope is to take a very short list of unfamiliar items and take my time.

Do you have any guidebooks to recommend?

I think it would be

I think it would be impossible to have a guidebook to a typical market…it would have to be huge, on the scale of an encyclopedia probably. (a typical supermarket has thousands of items). I guess the best thing to do is to go with someone who knows their way around, but if that’s not possible browsing through an online grocery store with good descriptions can help a lot. Japan Centre has a pretty good online store for instance for Japanese food.

Re: Yes, I am confused.

Maki thank you so much for the tips on how to drain tofu. I always end up with a watery mess or squish it till it starts to fall apart. You've saved my tofu sanity. I've been wanting to pick up some fresh tofu from the little factory in San Jose but I feel like I am so fail with tofu I haven't dared to try to ruin the good stuff yet.

http://www.amazon.com/Asian-Grocery-Store-Demystified-Guides/dp/15806304... Not sure if you ever saw that but it's a good way to start I think. I was impressed by all the info stuffed into that one little book. It's not perfect but would definitely be a good place to start I think.

I'll give you my quick white girl guide to Asian markets. I buy first and ask questions later. If something looks interesting 9 out of 10 times it's way cheap and just caught my eye so I pick it up. Then when I get it home I do some internet research! This sometimes is important. Raw candle nuts come to mind. I didn't know they were poisonous and had to be cooked first! I've learned so much about markets just from trying things and not being afraid to buy something strange then read about it later. The other quick trick is that items have to list names and nutrition and ingredient info on the package in English so sometimes I just simply turn the product around and look at ingredients or names to try to figure out what the heck I am looking at.

Your local Seattle 99 Ranch might be a good place to start since (at least in California where I'm at) they cater to a wide variety of people including me and my lack of Asian self. They offer adds and product names in multiple languages including English! They're Japanese selection isn't the greatest though so just be aware of that. Also don't be afraid to ask someone for help! I find when I am looking for something at my local stores people will happily help me, even other shoppers and make suggestions on their favorite brands or ways to cook things!

I’d never heard the

I’d never heard the quick-drain microwave tip. I’ll have to try that!

love your site

can’t wait to check out the tofu recipes!

Dried Tofu?

I am new in Japan. My husband picked up some dry tofu the other day, but I had no idea what to do with it (I’m very limited in reading Japanese). Is this type of tofu okay to use (it seemed very strange to me)? If so, do you happen to know how I put the water back into it? From what my husband could tell, it seems you soak it, then microwave it? I’m very confused. I’m a little weary to use it as I had never seen it this way before.

kouya dofu

Your husband probably got kouya dofu 高野豆腐, which I describe in Looking at tofu (though no picture yet since I don’t have any on hand). It’s freeze-dried tofu, and is usually used in soups or stewed. Briefly, you soak it in plain water until the sponge-like squares have become soft and saturated. Then you squeeze them out and put them in soups or a stew mixture (usually dashi stock, soy sauce, mirin, etc). The texture is very different from fresh tofu. I’ll try to post a how-to once I get some in (it’s very expensive here!) Hope that helps in the meantime though!


Thank you very much! I have a hard time understanding the directions on packages sometimes. I had never seen tofu come in a package like that, so I was a bit confused—and the texture, indeed, was very different from fresh tofu, which made me worried. Thanks again for the help! I really love you site and look forward to future posts.

Re: Quick tip: Using tofu in bento-friendly recipes

There's also great tofu presses out there that are quick and easy to use.

Re: Quick tip: Using tofu in bento-friendly recipes

Another method I saw on Food Network on the show "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives" is to deep fry the tofu. The place used peanut oil, so it was almost healthy (as healthy as deep frying can get) and was totally vegan, used in their vegan Smoked Coconut Sammich. And if you have peanut allergies it's totally safe for you to use peanut oil for things like frying and sauces because the protein chains that cause the allergic reactions are in the flesh, not in the oil. (Source, Alton Brown, Food Network, "Good Eats") Sorry if that's a tad heavy on the tech-speak, but the science it there.

Re: Quick tip: Using tofu in bento-friendly recipes

I have to say that the show (didn't see it) didn't discover anything new...Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian cultures have been deep frying tofu for ages. ^_^ (The texture of the surface does change a lot though.) Japanese versions include 'atsuage' and 'aburaage'. See Looking at tofu.

Re: Quick tip: Using tofu in bento-friendly recipes

I have to say that the show (didn't see it) didn't discover anything new...Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian cultures have been deep frying tofu for ages. ^_^ (The texture of the surface does change a lot though.) Japanese versions include 'atsuage' and 'aburaage'. See Looking at tofu.

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