In Chinese cuisine, there are many delicious plant-based proteins that aren’t just for vegetarians and vegans! They are delicious in their own right, and extremely varied in texture and application. The tofu section at an Asian grocery is almost as large and confusing as a supermarket dairy section might be to a Chinese shopper!
Tofu, or bean curd (made from soybeans), comes in various forms, from the most common—regular firm tofu—to tofu skin, bean threads, tofu sheets, and pressed tofu. Some tofu items are found in the dry goods aisle as well!
Seitan, which is basically the protein isolated from wheat flour, is also a super versatile ingredient, and comes fresh, frozen, fried, or dried.
While these ingredients are mildly flavored (some may say bland), their strength lies in the variety of textures they offer, and their ability to absorb other flavors.
With so many different kinds out there, each with their own texture, flavor, and purpose, we’ll walk you through some of the main types and their uses below.
Click ‘Read More’ under each ingredient to jump to a dedicated article that explains more about each one, how it’s used, and our favorite recipes for it, as well as what to look for at the Asian Market.
Questions about other ingredients? Check out other categories in our Chinese Ingredients Glossary.
firm Tofu (豆腐, Dòufu)
Firm tofu is readily available and versatile—soft enough for soups and steamed dishes, yet firm enough for pan-frying or stir-frying. Tofu starts with soaking dried soybeans. They are ground and boiled to make soy milk, which is then coagulated (much like dairy milk is to make cheese). The resulting curds are pressed into blocks, hence the term “bean curd.” Firm tofu has had some of the liquid pressed out of it for a more solid texture. You may also find “extra firm” tofu, which has had even more liquid removed.
Silken & Soft Tofu (嫩豆腐, Nèn dòufu)
Silken and soft tofu are made in much the same process as firm tofu, described above. However, it is not pressed or drained as long, giving it a high moisture content, and a smoother, more delicate texture—almost like a custard. Generally silken tofu is more delicate than soft tofu, though the two can be used interchangeably, and texture can vary by brand. Handle it delicately, and use it in dishes like Mapo Tofu, Beef & Soft Tofu Stir-fry, and our Chicken & Soft Tofu Casserole.
Frozen Tofu (冻豆腐, Dòng dòufu)
Frozen tofu is regular firm tofu that’s steamed, then frozen. When frozen in this way, the tofu is less delicate and holds its shape better, making it ideal for soups or hot pot. It actually becomes firmer, and almost sponge-like in texture (like a soy puff). It’s chewy and bouncy, with large holes that absorb sauces and flavorful broths. Frozen tofu is popular in Northern China, possibly because that is where home cooks realized that tofu that inadvertently froze in chilly nighttime temperatures had a pleasing texture! Learn how to make your own frozen tofu at home!
Pressed tofu – spiced or plain (豆腐干, Dòufu gān)
This type of tofu has had most of the liquid pressed out of it, and is braised and then left to dry. It comes in small squares in vacuum sealed packages, and is available plain or spiced. The two can be used interchangeably, though we usually buy the spiced version. Thinly sliced or cut into small cubes, it can be added to stir-fries, soups, braised dishes, or even enjoyed right out of the package with a flavorful dressing (all tofu has already been cooked!). Try it in our Hot & Sour Soup or Spiced Tofu Stir-fry with Shredded Pork.
Tofu Skin / Sheets (豆腐皮, Dòufu pí)
This type of tofu is compressed into thin sheets and often textured, to allow them to cling better to sauces. In the US, this is often pre-packaged, but in Beijing, we loved buying it fresh, just a few sheets at a time. We most often slice them for stir-fries like our Tofu Sheet Stir-fry with Pork & Peppers, but there are plenty more creative ways to use them. Judy’s mother makes “gold bars” around Chinese New Year, which are tofu skins rolled with a veggie-pork filling, kind of like a spring roll.
Tofu “Noodles” (豆腐丝, dòufu sī)
Tofu noodles are similar in texture to tofu skin (above) which are sheets of pressed tofu, but they are cut into thin strips, almost like noodles. The actual translation of 豆腐丝 is more like “tofu silk” or shredded tofu. These come in different textures and thicknesses, as well as seasoned/unseasoned versions. Because the tofu was already cooked in the production process, they can be eaten right out of the package or cooked. They are great in cold salads, like our Chinese Tofu Salad, or stir-fries.
Bean Curd Sheets – Fresh/dried (腐皮, Fǔ pí)
Bean curd sheets originated as a by-product of soy milk production. When boiling soy milk, a thin skin forms at the top. That skin is carefully lifted off the soy milk in sheets, which can be sold fresh/frozen (pictured left), or dried. The dried version must be soaked before use, though the fresh is much easier to use and preferred. Find fresh bean curd sheets (zhāi xiān fǔ pí – 齋鲜腐皮) in the refrigerated or frozen section of Chinese grocery stores. We stuff them with fillings, as in our Chinese Vegetarian Duck, a classic Buddhist recipe. They can also be used to make dim sum items or used in soups and hot pot.
Bean Curd Sticks/Dried Bean Threads (腐竹, fǔzhú)
Bean threads or dried bean curd sticks are made much in the same process as the bean curd sheets above. When heated soy milk forms a film on top, that film is lifted with a stick, rolled, and dried. This is known as fǔzhú in Mandarin, or foo jook in Cantonese. These are always sold dried, and are quite delicate, so make sure not to crush them as you transport them home from the market. They must be soaked before use and can be added to soups, stir-fries, and braised dishes.
Fried Bean Curd / Soy Puffs (油豆腐, Yóu dòufu)
Fried bean curd can come in several forms, including the triangular shaped ones pictured to the left, as well as squares and cube-like “soy puffs.” With each shape, you’ll get a different texture. They generally have a golden outside and an airy, sponge-like center that soaks up sauces from braises or hot pot broth or soup. Be careful when enjoying them, because they can be very hot and burn your tongue! Find them in the refrigerated section of the Chinese grocery store near the other fresh tofu products.
Tofu Knots (百叶节, Bǎiyè jié)
These are made by taking very thin tofu skin and folding them repeatedly, then tying them into little knots. The purpose of doing that is again, that all important aspect of any Chinese dish: texture. They’re primarily used in braised dishes or soups, as all the flavor of a sauce or soup they’re cooked in gets caught into the little folds of each knot. You can find them pre-made in the Chinese grocery store’s refrigerated section. Try them in our Shanghai Salted Pork Soup (Yan Du Xian).
Fermented Bean curd (腐乳, Fǔrǔ)
This ingredients is not used as a main protein, but as a flavoring agent, which is why you’ll also see it on our Chinese sauces page. They come in small cubes in liquid, packaged in glass or clay jars. There are many types and variations, but the two most common are white fermented bean curd and red fermented bean curd. White fermented bean curd can be eaten on its own with porridge or used as a seasoning for leafy greens and other recipes. Red fermented bean curd is often used in meat marinades and stews.
Seitan / Wheat Gluten (面筋, Miànjīn)
Seitan (the Japanese term for this ingredient, as it is usually known in the West) is the protein/gluten isolated from wheat flour. It is steamed or fried, and can then be added to stir-fries, braises, and more. While it’s recently become popular as a plant-based protein alternative, it’s been around in Chinese and Buddhist cuisines for centuries. Find it dried, fried, fresh, or frozen, and use it in dishes like our Stuffed Fried Gluten Balls or Braised Wheat Gluten with Mushrooms.