This chilli garlic tofu recipe has become a go-to ever since I came across it in Meera Sodha’s cookbook East.
Her recipe is of course a vegan riff on the popular Indo-Chinese dish chilli paneer. It’s the perfect combination of sweet, spicy and tangy flavours. Everything you want in a dish!
In India, you’ll see this made with a variety of ingredients such as chicken, prawns, mutton etc. So even though I’m using tofu in this recipe, you can swap it for whatever you want.
In Meera Sodha’s book, she serves the chilli tofu as is, which is the most common (and an excellent) way of eating it. But I thought it would be nice to amplify the Chinese flavours a little bit more with a few other ingredients.
So I’ve served it wrapped up in a soft, fluffy bao with a quick Chinese carrot and cucumber pickle. Very similar to another Chinese/Taiwanese dish – gua bao. More on that below.
Side note: Meera Sodha’s cookbook is full of vegetarian and vegan recipes from South Asia, East Asia and South East Asia. It’s the style of food I eat everyday. I highly recommend her book if you’re looking for more plant based recipes. Plus, it’s a good-looking book so it’ll look great on your bookshelf!
What is Indo-Chinese cuisine?
For those of you who don’t know, Indo-Chinese cuisine is unique to India and it has a long history there. It first came about in the late 18th century when Chinese immigrants moved to India for work.
Many became restaurateurs and started blending Indian spices and ingredients with Chinese flavours. There were two reasons for this. One was of course due to the availability, or rather unavailability, of spices and ingredients. They had to cook their traditional recipes with whatever was available to them. But also, they wanted to meld Indian and Chinese flavours together to cater to their customers’ tastes.
And cater to their customers’ tastes it definitely did. Their dishes have stood the test of time and Indo-Chinese cuisine is hugely popular in India and also around the world.
Interestingly, the cuisine is specifically thought to have originated in Calcutta which had the most Chinese immigrants at the time. In fact there’s still a small Chinese community that live there. And, Calcutta even lays claim to the only Chinatown in the country which I definitely plan on visiting next time I’m in India.
How to make chilli garlic tofu
Since this dish has origins in India, it’s a tofu recipe Indians can lay claim too. The recipe for the chilli garlic tofu is pretty straight forward. It’s got chilli and garlic in its name so you know the two ingredients will feature heavily. The rest is just a balancing act of flavours.
I’ve used four chillies in this recipe, you can use more if you can handle the heat! I used small Indian green chillies but any type of green chilli will work just as well.
The onions are also important in this dish as the natural sugars in the onion will caramelise and give it a pleasant sweetness. But it does need time for that to happen so just be patient and stir occasionally to make sure the onions don’t burn.
Then the capsicums (or peppers) add a delightful crunch and a lovely pop of colour as well. It’s why I’ve used red and green capsicum specifically but you can use any colour you have.
Crispy fried tofu
I’ve made a few tweaks here and there to Meera Sodha’s recipe but here’s where I’ve differed the most. Her tofu pieces are deep-fried, whereas I’ve decided to shallow fry. In my opinion it works just as well and you use a lot less oil too so win-win.
Before you fry the tofu, cut them up into even pieces and then coat with corn flour. The corn flour is what will give the tofu it’s crispy coating so don’t skip this step. It’s just a very light coating but it works well to hold on to the chilli garlic sauce.
Fry each side till it’s golden brown all the way around. This will take about 10 to 15 minutes. If you shallow fry, you will have to go to the effort of turning each tofu piece around. I guess this is where the benefit of deep frying comes in. You’d just have to throw them in and scoop them out. So do whichever you’re most comfortable with.
You potentially might even be able to air fry them. But I haven’t tried this so if you try it, do let me know how it went. Also, you definitely want to use firm tofu for this dish. Soft tofu will not work here.
So all in all, you’ve got the heat from the chillies, the sourness from the tomato paste, sweetness from the onions and there’s still a little crunch from capsicum and the fried tofu.
BUT, the bao is a very nice vehicle for the dish so I do recommend carrying on with the recipe and trying it with the baos.
Quick Chinese pickled vegetables
The pickled carrot and cucumber is optional but I do recommend it. It adds a punch of acidity to the dish that really amplifies all the other flavours. And it really doesn’t take long to make. All you need to do is chop up the ingredients, combine everything and let it sit for at least 30 minutes.
If you do decide to make the pickled vegetables, do it first so it has time to pickle while you work on the chilli garlic tofu recipe.
This pickled carrot and cucumber is one you’ll find commonly served as a complimentary side dish at Chinese restaurants. There are a few variations, some include cabbage, sesame seeds and other aromatics.
Some recipes will tell you to salt the vegetables for an hour or so before you pickle it. This is to remove any excess moisture from the vegetables so they get super crunchy. I’ve skipped this step because I wanted it to be a super quick recipe, but you can do that if you want to.
The Woks of Life has a recipe for a cabbage and carrot pickle that’s been salted for the extra crunch if you’re interested.
For my version, all you need to do is thinly slice the carrot and cucumber and add them to a sterilised jar. If you want it spicy, you can also add two chopped red chillies. Then add your rice wine vinegar, salt and sugar and shake till it all dissolves.
The amount of vinegar you use will depend on the type of vinegar you use and how acidic it is. Rice wine vinegar for example is quite mild so one cup is fine. White vinegar on the other hand can be quite tart so you’ll want to use half a cup instead and dilute with half a cup of water. Just taste before using and then decide on the ratio.
You probably won’t use all of the pickled carrot and cucumber for the recipe but it will keep in your fridge for up to two weeks.
How to steam baos
I’ve buy my frozen baos from the Asian store. You’re more than welcome to make your own of course but for the sake of convenience, I buy mine frozen. You should have no problems finding them at your Asian store, they’re sometimes labelled as sandwich buns.
There are all sorts of baos, the buns I’ve used for the recipe are typically used for gua baos. Gua bao is a street food originating in Taiwan that usually has some kind of meat filling, pickled veg, crushed peanut and coriander garnish. Very similar to how we’re having it in this recipe.
To get them ready to eat, just leave them out to thaw and once it’s at room temperature, steam the buns for 5 to 8 minutes. You can use a bamboo steamer and wok. Or you can use a metal steamer over a pot as well. Just make sure you don’t add too much water at the bottom. You don’t want the water to come through the steamer and soak the buns, you want just enough to create steam.
If you don’t have a steamer, that’s fine you can just microwave these for a minute and it’ll be good to go but you’ll want to eat them right away. The microwaved ones harden up pretty quickly whereas if you steam it, it stays soft for much longer.
Do the finger test and poke them to check that they’re nice, soft and fluffy. And if they open up easily, then it’s ready to go!
Note: A little tip for those of you who don’t know. Bao means bun so when you refer to them you just call them baos, not bao buns. That’s like saying bun buns. Just like how it’s not chai tea, it’s just chai. It’s an easy mistake to make so just passing on some knowledge in an effort to educate and inform :)
Assembling and garnishing
Now all there is to do is add the garlic chilli tofu to the baos, making sure to get some red and green capsicum in there. Add a few pieces of the pickled carrot and cucumber and garnish with crushed peanuts, coriander and a squeeze of lime.
You should have more than enough chilli garlic tofu to make at least 12 to 14 buns but it all depends on the size of your buns as well. If there’s any left over chilli garlic tofu, the great thing is that it works so well by itself so you can just gobble it up as is!
More B’s Bites
I really hope you guys enjoy this recipe. As I said, the garlic chilli tofu is great on its own but definitely try it with the baos and pickled veg. If you tried this recipe, let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
Chilli garlic tofu
- 500g block of firm tofu
- 1/4 cup corn flour
- 6 tbsp canola oil
- 2 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 brown onion, diced
- 8 cloves garlic, sliced
- 3cm ginger, grated
- 4 green chillies, slit down the middle and chopped
- 2-3 tbsp tomato paste
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- Good pinch of pepper
- 1 small red capsicum, sliced lengthwise
- 1 small green capsicum, sliced lengthwise
- 1/3 cup water
- Coriander garnish
- Crushed peanuts garnish
Quick Chinese pickled vegetables
- 1 carrot, quartered and sliced into thin 1cm strips
- 1 cucumber, quartered and sliced into 2cm strips
- 2 red chillies, chopped
- 1 cup rice wine vinegar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp sugar
Frozen sandwich baos
- 12-14 frozen baos
- 1/3 cup peanuts, roughly chopped or crushed
- 1/3 cup coriander, roughly chopped
- Half a lime
Chilli garlic tofu
- Rinse your tofu block and pat dry with a paper towel, pressing down to get as much water out of it as possible.
- Cut the block in thirds and then slice it into 2cm long pieces.
- Dust the tofu with cornflour, tossing to make sure all sides of the tofu gets coated.
- Then to a skillet, add about 6 tbsp of oil or just enough to coat the bottom of the pan, let it heat up and then add the tofu pieces to the skillet, frying each side till golden brown.
- Once all the tofu cubes are golden brown, lay them out on a paper towel and set that aside while we work on our sauce.
- To the same skillet, add the cumin seeds and onion, sautéing for about 10 minutes till the onions are soft and sweet.
- Once the onions are golden, add the garlic cloves and grate the ginger straight into the pan.
- Add the green chillies, two of them slit down the middle and two of them finely chopped.
- Sauté for a couple of minutes and then add the tomato paste, soy sauce, sugar, and salt and pepper to taste.
- Mix well and let the sauce cook for a couple of minutes so all the flavours can come together.
- Add the capsicum, mix through and then the water and cover. Let it cook till the capsicum softens.
- Keep an eye out on the sauce and add more water if you think it's looking too dry. You want to have just enough sauce to coat the tofu.
- Once the capsicum has softened, throw in the tofu and mix everything together.
- If choosing to have it by itself, garnish with crushed peanuts and coriander and enjoy! If choosing to have with baos and pickled veg, continue with steps below.
Quick Chinese pickled vegetables
- Add the carrot and cucumber strips to a sterilised jar. Add the chopped red chillies as well, if using.
- Add 1 cup of rice wine vinegar and then add 1 tsp sugar and 1 tsp of salt.
- Close the cap tightly and shake till it all dissolves. Set it aside or refrigerate for at least 30 mins.
- Ready to eat!
- Leave the baos out to thaw and once it's at room temperature, steam the buns for 5 to 8 mins.
- You can use a bamboo steamer and wok. Or you can use a metal steamer over a pot as well.
- Once they're soft and fluffy, and open up easily, that's when it's ready.
- Add the chilli garlic chilli tofu to the baos, making sure to get some red and green capsicum in there.
- Add a few pieces of the pickled carrot and cucumber.
- Garnish with crushed peanuts, coriander and a squeeze of lime.
The Chinese pickled vegetables will keep in the fridge for up to two weeks. The amount of vinegar you use will depend on the type of vinegar you use and how acidic it is. Rice wine vinegar for example is quite mild so one cup is fine. White vinegar on the other hand can be quite tart so you'll want to use half a cup instead and dilute with half a cup of water. Just taste your vinegar before using it and then decide on the ratio.