Korean Spicy Tofu Bulgogi
As of late, one deciding go or no go factor for my recipes has been based on their ability to be translated into vegetarian versions with a high degree of quality. Don't fret, the Meatwave isn't going vegetarian, but I've been much more mindful of my guests who are not meat eaters, and while that attention is always appreciated, it seems to be the most successful when my guests are able to enjoy things very similar to what everyone else is eating. So while the original impetus for this Korean spicy bulgogi recipe was for use with thinly sliced pork shoulder, the immensely flavorful marinade seemed perfect for seasoning tofu, and at the end of the day, every eater at my cookout was able to enjoy this crazy delicious dish.
It wasn't that long ago that tofu was a foreign medium to me, but I've become well aquatinted and versed with it over the past couple years. For grilling, I've found the extra-firm stuff is the way to go, and before marinating or seasoning, it benefits from being sliced and then squeezed of excess moisture. This avoids any marinade from being watered down and also promotes quicker browning and overall cooking.
If you've never had any spicy Korean barbecue, you're totally missing out. This was my first love in Korean cuisine, and continues to be my favorite. The spicy Korean fermented pepper paste called gochujang does a lot of the work in the heat and flavor department, but that solid base is enhanced in savoriness by way of soy sauce and sesame oil, gets more bite from chili flakes, garlic, and ginger, and is then lightly balanced by brown sugar and mirin. Really, anything this marinade touches turns into edible gold.
After prepping the tofu, I married it with the sauce in a resealable bag and then let it marinate in the fridge overnight. If you're short on time, just an hour will do you well here if needed.
Marinade times are always great opportunities to put together sauces and other accompaniments. You can peruse my archive of Korean recipes and find whatever sauces that look best to you for use here, but I'm featuring a ginger-scallion sauce and kimchi puree in the final recipe since those were my personal favorites with the tofu. Both come via the Momofuku cookbook and are quick to prepare. The puree is literally just kimchi taken for a spin in a food processor, while the ginger-scallion sauce is mainly those two ingredients with a little oil and sherry vinegar thrown in.
When it comes to grilling tofu, I've been favoring a two-step method that begins will roasting the tofu over indirect heat. I do this to allow moisture to be gently cooked out of the tofu, letting it firm up a bit without it burning. After about 12-15 minutes, the tofu usually gets to the ideal firm, but still a little tender consistancy, at which point I move it directly over the coals for caramelization. I like to reserve some marinade and brush it on at this point to for an added boost of flavor.
Once this batch of tofu was done, I moved the slices to a cutting board and cut them into even smaller, bite sized bits. I then loaded them into a platter and served with bibb lettuce, rice, and the sauces.
Altogether, this made for one incredibly tasty little lettuce wrap. The tofu was the centerpiece of the flavor here with a strong savoriness and heat that demanded attention. That hearty character was contrasted by the fresh lettuce and ginger-scallion sauce, while the kimchi added a kick of sour heat that further cemented the Korean profile. This didn't just do well in lettuce though, we also piled the tofu into bags of Fritos to make walking tacos, and I'm sure it would do great in whatever fashion you'd like to serve it in. For me, a big part of the overall success of this recipe was in the fact that all my guests were able to leave that day having shared Korean spicy bulgogi experiences, omitting no one out of the party.
Korean Spicy Tofu Bulgogi
- Yield 6 servings
- Prep 20 Minutes
- Inactive 1 Hour
- Cook 15 Minutes
- Total 1 Hour 35 Minutes
- For the Spicy Tofu
- 3 tablespoons gochujang (Korean chili paste)
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons mirin
- 1 tablespoon gochugaru (Korean chili flakes)
- 1 tablespoons finely minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon finely minced ginger
- 2 tablespoon sesame oil
- 2 scallions, finely minced
- 1 pound extra-firm tofu, drained, rinsed, and cut into 1/2-inch thick 2-inch squares
- For the Ginger-scallion Sauce
- 2 bunches scallions, thinly sliced (white and greens)
- 1/2 cup minced fresh ginger
- 1/4 cup canola or grapeseed oil
- 3/4 teaspoon sherry vinegar
- For the Kimchi Puree
- 1 cup kimchi
- For Serving
- 1 head of bibb lettuce, separated into individual leaves, rinsed and dried
- 2-3 cups cooked white rice
- To make the tofu: In a small bowl, whisk together gochujang, soy sauce, brown sugar, mirin, gochugaru, garlic, ginger, sesame oil, and scallions. 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 sauce, and toss to distribute. Place bag in refrigerator and marinate for 1 hour to overnight.
- To make the ginger-scallion sauce: In a medium bowl, combine the scallions, ginger, oil, and sherry vinegar. Season with salt to taste. Transfer to a serving dish.
- To make the kimchi puree: Place kimchi in the workbowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Pulse until kimchi is finely chopped. Transfer to a serving dish.
- 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 and cut into bite-size pieces.
- To serve: Transfer tofu to a large serving platter along with lettuce. Serve immediately with ginger-scallion sauce and kimchi puree.