Char Siu Tofu Buns
I was pretty excited for the char siu pork belly buns I decided to make at a Meatwave this past season, but felt a little bad that the item I was looking forward to the most couldn't be enjoyed by about a third of my guests since they were vegetarians. Not wanting to leave anyone out of a centerpiece dish for the day, I decided to make the exact same buns, expect sub out the slow smoked char siu pork belly in exchange for marinated and grilled char siu tofu, and while on the surface the recipes are fairly similar, the final outcome of the vegetarian option was pretty different and unique.
This was one of three recipes of the day that shared the same large batch of char siu sauce I put together. My usual char siu recipe is a mixture of the easy to procure ingredients of hoisin, honey, soy sauce, dry sherry, and five space powder. Since I was doing my shopping for this Meatwave at my local Asian market, I decided to try adding the traditional ingredient of red fermented bean curd as well, which I think enhanced the color and earthy quality of the char siu, although I can tell you from experience, the recipe is also great with this harder to find ingredient omitted.
With a large vegetarian constituency and tofu being incredibly versatile, it has become a pretty regular item at Meatwaves these days. That's not something I thought I would ever say, but really, tofu is a blank slate and it really takes on any flavor you introduce to it, so it has proven to be pretty tasty stuff again and again.
For grilling, I've always start with extra firm tofu, which is sturdy enough to hold up against a hot fire. There's still a ton of moisture in the stuff though, so I start by squeezing out excess liquid before introducing any flavoring.
Tofu's porous and spongy texture also means it absorbs marinades better than any meat can. This has led me to be a fan of marinating my tofu at least an hour, but up to overnight, so as much of that flavor can seep into the bland tofu as possible. In this case, that marinade was about a third of the char siu sauce I had made, which coated the tofu great, giving it an instant earthy red, appetizing color.
For cooking, I've found a two-step method yields an final ideal texture that's both the right balance between firm and tender and also a little crisp on the outside. I started the grilling over indirect heat, allowing the tofu to roast until it lost a lot of moisture and the exterior began to lightly brown.
At this point I brushed the slices with more char siu sauce and moved the tofu directly over the fire. With the outside already pretty dry by now, plus the addition of a sugary sauce, this had the tofu finishing up really quickly over the high heat, with the sauce caramelizing and browning in just a minute or two per side.
After that, I assembled the buns in the exact same manner and I did with the belly version—steaming the buns until warm and soft, then stuffing each with a slice or two of the char siu and topping with fresh grated carrots, quick pickle slices, and a squeeze of hoisin.
Although seemingly similar on paper, the way the tofu took on the char siu sauce was a lot different than the pork. Where the pork had a minimal, yet effective, glossy char siu coating on the outside only, the char siu on the tofu was embedded throughout. This actually led to a different flavor as well—while the pork was mostly sweet, all the earthy complexity of the char siu sauce was still present in the tofu, along with that standard sweetness that makes it so universally pleasing. I wasn't actually planning on even writing this up as a separate recipe because it felt like merely an exercise in repetition, but after tasting it, I knew these were deserving of their own post, and directly following the pork belly ones, so no matter if you're vegetarian or not, you can enjoy these excellent buns.
Char Siu Tofu Buns
- Yield 6-8 servings
- Prep 30 Minutes
- Inactive 1 Hour
- Cook 15 Minutes
- Total 1 Hour 45 Minutes
- For the Pickles
- 1 cup rice wine vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 seedless cucumber, very thinly sliced on a mandoline
- For the Sauce
- 1/3 cup hoisin sauce
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
- 2 pieces Chinese red fermented bean curd
- 4 teaspoons sauce from jar of Chinese red fermented bean curd
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons Chinese five spice powder
- 2 pounds extra-firm tofu, drained, rinsed, and cut into 1/2-inch thick 2-inch squares
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and shredded on large holes of a box grater
- 1/3 cup hoisin sauce
- To make the pickles: Whisk together vinegar, water, sugar, and salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Remove from heat, add cucumber slices, and stir. Place a clean kitchen towel or double layer of heavy duty paper towels on top of pickles and press down until saturated with liquid and in direct contact with the cucumbers. Let sit for 10 minutes, then strain pickles. If storing, reserve strained liquid, place pickles in an airtight container, and add enough liquid to just submerge pickles. Discard remaining liquid and store pickles in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
- To make the sauce: In a medium bowl, whisk together hoisin sauce, honey, soy sauce, rice wine or sherry, fermented bean curd, fermented bean curd sauce, salt, and five spice powder.
- Line a work surface or sheet pan with paper towels. Lay tofu slices in a single layer on paper towel and lay another layer of paper on top. Press gently on tofu to squeeze out excess moisture. Transfer tofu to a Ziploc bag, pour in char siu sauce, and toss to distribute. Place bag in refrigerator and marinate for 1 hour to overnight.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil grilling grate. Place tofu on cool side of grill, cover, and cook for 7 minutes. Reserve marinade. Flip tofu, cover, and continue cooking until tofu has lightly browned, about 7 minutes more. Brush tofu with reserved marinade, move tofu to hot side of grill, and cook until lightly charred and sauce has thickened, 1-2 minutes per side. Transfer tofu to a cutting board or plate.
- Steam buns in a bamboo steamer or in the microwave on a large plate under a damp towel until soft and heated through. Place 2 pieces of tofu in each bun and top with pickle slices, grated carrot, and a dollop of hoisin sauce. Serve immediately.