Tofu Karaage (豆腐唐揚げ)
With a light crispy exterior that’s wrapped around a juicy, flavorful protein, Karaage is easily one of my favorite foods of all time! Although it’s usually known as Japanese fried chicken, it can be made with other proteins as well. Today I want to show you transform tofu into a delicious vegetarian and vegan-friendly Karaage by using a few tricks to change its texture and infuse it with boatloads of flavor.
Why This Recipe Works?
- Pressing firm tofu under a weight presses out pockets of water, which collapse to form layers of protein with a meat-like texture.
- Marinating the tofu in ingredients rich in amino acids such as soy sauce, sake, and konbu tea imbues the tofu with meaty umami.
- Tearing the tofu into irregular chunks and dusting it with potato starch makes this plant-based Karaage visually identical to Karaage made with meat.
- Double frying the tofu creates a lasting extra crispy crust.
Ingredients for Tofu Karaage
- Firm Tofu – There are two ways to make tofu. The first is to mix coagulant into soy milk and then steam it in a mold. This makes a custardy style of tofu that’s often known as soft or silken tofu. This style of tofu is too soft and will not work for this recipe. The second method is to curdle soy milk by heating it with a coagulant and then capture the curds and pressing them into a mold, like cheese. This process makes firm tofu, and the firmness is determined by how much water is squeezed out of the curds while they’re still hot. To get the best texture for this vegan Karaage, you want to use tofu that’s on the softer side of firm tofu (firm as opposed to extra firm). You can also probably get creative here and use a different alternative protein, but I’ve worked out a process that gives the tofu a texture that’s juicy on the inside and firm and meaty on the outside.
- Sake – Sake is added to Japanese food for its amino acid content, not for the alcohol (most of which evaporates during cooking). This creates the taste of umami. You can learn more about the science behind it here.
- Soy Sauce – Soy sauce not only seasons the Karaage, but it is also another good source of amino acids.
- Konbucha – I know this sounds like the tangy fermented tea that everyone loves, but Konbucha in Japan is a savory “tea” made from kelp (it’s really more like a clear stock). The theory is that someone got the translation mixed up when they brought the concept to the US, and the name stuck. In case you were wondering, the name for the fermented tea in Japan is Koucha Kinoko, which literally translates to black tea mushroom. Since tofu has a much lower concentration of glutamic acid than meat, adding Konbucha is an excellent natural way of bumping up the umami-producing compound. If you can’t find it, some good alternatives are 2 teaspoons of nutritional yeast or 1 teaspoon of shiitake or porcini mushroom powder.
- Ginger – Ginger is a core component of the taste of Karaage. I like to keep the addition relatively subtle, so I don’t add very much, but you can add more if you like.
- Garlic – I don’t usually add garlic to my meat-based Karaage because it covers up the taste of the chicken, but for tofu, covering up the soybean flavor is a good thing.
- Potato Starch – The light crispy shell around Japanese fried chicken is created by coating it in starch. Specifically, you want to use potato starch. Cornstarch will work in a pinch, but the texture is heavier and more crunchy than crispy. It’s kind of like the difference in texture between a potato chip and corn chips. In the US, the most common brand of potato starch is Bob’s Red Mill.
How to Make Tofu Karaage
To press the tofu, put it on a wire rack set on a tray. If you don’t have a wire rack, a relatively flat-bottomed strainer or colander will work. Place another tray or plate on top of the tofu, and then balance some weight on top. If you are using a strainer, you may need to use a bowl on top of the tofu. You want to put as much weight onto the tofu as you can without smashing it up. Let this sit for about an hour to press out the excess water.
To make the marinade for the Karaage, add the sake, soy sauce, konbucha, and garlic to a bowl and whisk everything together. When the tofu is done pressing, tear it into irregular bite-sized pieces and place them in the marinade. You want to try and get rid of any hard corners in the tofu.
Gently fold the tofu and marinade together to make sure it’s evenly coated but be very careful not to break the tofu up any further, or your pieces will be too small. Let this marinate for at least 30 minutes.
While you’re waiting, prepare a wire rack by lining it with a few sheets of paper towels. Next, add 1 1/2 inches of vegetable oil to a heavy-bottomed pot (make sure the sides go up at least 5-inches to prevent overflowing). Preheat the oil to 340 degrees F (170 C).
When you’re ready to fry the tofu, drain off any excess marinade, and then roll each piece of tofu in the potato starch to give it an even coating. Dust off the excess starch by tapping the pieces against the side of the bowl and then lower them into the oil. Flip the tofu over after the crust sets to ensure they brown evenly.
After about five minutes, the Tofu Karaage should be light brown in color and crisp. Transfer it to a plate or bowl and set it aside (there’s no need to drain them on paper towels since you’re going to fry it again). Increase the heat of the oil to 355 F (180 C).
When the oil is up to temperature, add all of the Karaage back in and fry a second time until the crust is very crispy and golden brown. This should take another four to five minutes.
When the Tofu Karaage is done, drain it on the paper towel lined rack and serve immediately with wedges of lemon.
Other Crispy Plant-Based Recipes
- Crispy Tofu Bites
- Tofu Katsu
- Kakiage (mixed vegetable tempura)
- Mushroom Tempura
- Daigaku Imo (glazed sweet potatoes)
Historically, Karaage (唐揚げ) was a dish made by coating food in a light dusting of flour or potato starch and deep-frying it. In its original form, the food was not marinated. The specific preparation of food being marinated in soy sauce and then coated in potato starch before being fried is technically Tatsutaage (竜田揚げ), which is thought to be named after the Tatsuta River in Nara prefecture. These days the term “Karaage” is used to broadly describe a class of dishes that can be marinated (or not) and then coated in starch or flour and deep-fried.
Tofu Karaage (豆腐唐揚げ) is a 7-syllable name that is pronounced as follows in Japanese:
to like toad
u like oops
fu like fool
ka like copy
ra like the “ra” sound does not exist in the English language and the best way to make it is to say the word “romp” with the tip of your tongue at the front of your mouth.
a like all
ge like get
Yes! This Karaage recipe is plant-based and vegan-friendly.
The method of pressing the tofu is specifically for tofu, but the marinade and frying method can be adapted for other plant-based proteins such as TVP, seitan, and tempeh.
firm tofu (1 block)
konbucha (not the fermented beverage, see headnotes)
ginger (1/2 teaspoon)
garlic (1/2 teaspoon)
Vegetable oil (for frying)
Lemon (for serving)
Put the tofu on a wire rack set over a tray and then place a flat-bottomed plate or tray on top of the tofu. Balance some weights on top of the tray to press the tofu. Let this rest for 1 hour.
For the Karaage marinade, whisk the sake, soy sauce, konbucha, ginger, and garlic together in a bowl and then tear bite-sized pieces of tofu into the marinade. Gently stir this together to ensure the tofu is evenly coated in marinade. Let this marinate for at least 30 minutes.
When the tofu is ready to fry, preheat 1.5 inches of vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed pot with high sides to 340 degrees F (170 C). Line a wire rack with a few layers of paper towels.
Once the oil is up to temperature, drain the tofu and then roll each piece of tofu in the potato starch to give it an even coating. Dust off any excess starch and set each piece of Karaage into the oil. Flip the tofu periodically to ensure even browning.
When the tofu is light-brown and crisp (about 5 minutes), transfer it to a plate and set it aside. Then, turn up the heat to 355 F (180 C).
Add all of the Karaage back in once the oil is up to temperature and fry it until it is golden brown (another 4-5 minutes).
Transfer the Karaage to the prepared rack and let it drain. Serve immediately with lemon wedges for squeezing.