Black Pepper Tofu

There are a wide range of dishes that I consider good and worth making and worth telling you about. Some are simply satisfying and delicious, others are totally knock-your-socks-off amazing. This recipe is from the later category of recipes. It comes from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi and I have been eying it for weeks but feeling stressed out by the three kinds of soy sauce it calls for in the recipe. I didn’t know there were three kinds of soy sauce and I had no idea how I would find them, but am I glad I did.

Googling provided some answers but I eventually had to make a trip to Mitsuwa in Arlington Heights to find the sauces I wanted (but don’t let this discourage out!, see notes below). This recipe is simple but does require some time and a lot of chopping. There were moments when I began to doubt the success of the final product, but when I sat down to eat I was so impressed with what I had created and this immediately made its way onto my list of favorite foods.

This is spicy, there is a lot of black pepper, chile pepper and ginger in this recipe. But it is also sweet, and comforting and incredible and you can adjust the spice as you see fit. We served this on a bed of jasmine rice and ate slices of watermelon along side. It was totally perfect. I wish it were simpler so that it could be a weekly addition to our menu. We ate the leftovers the next day and like most things they weren’t as good. The tofu was no longer crispy and the sauce was less plentiful, but we still thoroughly enjoyed it. My advice to you is to make this for three of your favorite people and I guarantee there will be no leftovers.

*Notes on the soy sauce: don’t stress out about this. I am going to try next time only using two types. I have a sweet Indonesian Soy Sauce (like this) and a light soy sauce. But I imagine some combination of soy sauce and honey could also work.

*A note on measurements. I left this recipe in grams, as I find it easier to work with weight than volume anyway. We all should own an inexpensive kitchen scale so that we aren’t frustrated or limited by recipes from the rest of the world. Says me. ; )

Black Pepper Tofu (adapted from a recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi)

  • 800g firm, fresh tofu
  • Cornflour/cornstarch, to dust the tofu
  • Vegetable oil, for frying
  • 113 g butter (1 stick)
  • 12 small shallots (350g), peeled and thinly sliced
  • 4 red chillies, thinly sliced
  • 12 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 3 tbsp chopped ginger
  • 4 tbsp crushed black peppercorns
  • 3 tbsp sweet soy sauce
  • 3 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 4 tsp dark soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar (superfine sugar)
  • 16 small, thin spring onions, cut into segments 3cm long
  • jasmine rice for serving

Cut the tofu into 3cm x 2cm blocks and toss them in cornflour, shaking off the excess. Pour in enough oil to come 0.5cm up the sides of a large frying pan, and bring up to frying heat. Fry the tofu in batches in the oil, turning the pieces as you go. Once they are golden all around, and have a thin crust, transfer to a paper towel.

Remove the oil and any sediment from the pan and throw in the butter. Once it has melted, add the shallots, chillies, garlic and ginger, and sauté for about 15 minutes on low-medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the contents of the pan are shiny and totally soft. While you wait, crush the peppercorns, using a pestle and mortar or a spice grinder. They should be quite coarse.

When the shallots and chillies are soft, add the soy sauces and the sugar, stir, then stir in the crushed pepper. Warm the tofu in the sauce for about a minute, then add the spring onion and stir through. Serve hot with steamed rice.

62 comments to “Black Pepper Tofu”

  1. This is so up my alley. Looking forward to trying this.

  2. Tim:

    Golden Pacific on Broadway and Balmoral is an excellent source for soy sauces. They have an entire aisle. It’s a great resource in general for Asian ingredients.

    This recipe looks great, I can’t wait to try it.

  3. Or anywhere along Argyle! I’ve bought sweet soy sauce before, but I wonder what dark soy sauce is. Did you ever figure that out? Or just used standard soy sauce? When I read light, I think the low sodium variety.

  4. Not sure I could commit to the three different types of soy sauce, although it looks entirely worth it. I’ll definitely be keeping my eye out for them in shops, and might try a modified version of this in the meantime. Thanks for sharing this!

  5. !!!

  6. Oh I am SO enamored with this recipe! I made a caramelized tofu recipe recently (Vietnamese in origin) that is similar to this and was amazing. But this I need to try.

  7. This sounds so amazing! However I’m definitely one of those people who skips over a recipe when it calls for 3 different kinds of soy sauce! But you’ve intrigued me, so I might just have to head on over to my local Asian market.

  8. I made this about 18 months ago when it was featured on the Guardian website. It blew our heads off. It was such a surreal experience, making everything taste different afterwards, including the wine. Perception changing recipe to say the least!

  9. That looks fabulous! I will have to make it… and buy the book!

  10. I am eagerly awaiting my copy of Plenty. My Sis bought it for my birthday and is sending it out to me with my Mum.

    This dish looks delicious and actually quite an authentic dish. I will definitely be giving it a try.

  11. I have this book…and I’ve been eyeing this recipe too! There are so many choices in this beautiful book – it’s hard to pick. Thanks for the review, I will now proceed to stock up on soy sauces!

  12. I ordered today my fourth copy of Plenty as a wedding gift for a friend.. I really liked the book, yes. I tried this recipe as well and it was great, indeed, but it turned out so hot we were sweating for hours afterwards. I usually have no problem with spices and chillies, so I was wondering if my black pepper is extra strong? Was also your try mind blowing hot?

  13. SWOONING. Have been leafing through Plenty all week, but hadn’t hit this one, yet. I’ve got light and dark soy, but no sweet (yet). This one will be making it into the queue, for sure…

  14. This is a dish that I have been meaning to try since getting my copy of the book – thanks for the good report! Also, as a cook from another part of the world, thank you for your realistic approach to the whole ‘conversion’ issue – too many people make too big a deal about it!

  15. Sivan Harlap says:

    August 10th, 2010 at 4:36 pm


  16. I love a good tofu recipe, and since this involves a lot of spice it’s even better. bonus – i think i do have all three of those soy sauces!

  17. mmmmm…yes. I’m always on the lookout for flavorful vegetarian recipes, since I don’t eat meat on Tuesday for religious reasons. trick is–my partner Jill is a super-carnivore, so meat-free recipes have to be incredibly flavorful to convince her :) I think this one would do it!

    also, I’m with you re: kitchen scales. one of the best gadget purchases I ever made. works for mailing packages, too!

  18. Fellow chicagoan here. actually a Singapore transplant. Sweet soy sauce is largely a southeast asian thing, so I have yet to find any place in Chinatown that stocks it here! I use a lot of it and always get my family to send it to me from home. So I must ask, where did you procure the Indonesian sweet soya sauce (Kecap Manis)? I frequently use all 3 types of soy sauce in cooking too

  19. I second the suggestion to head to Golden Pacific for the soy sauce. It’s a great store. This looks delicious!

  20. Melissa, I’ve found Kecap Manis at Golden Pacific (5353 N Broadway).

    I think other shops on or near Argyle probably also carry it. The neighborhood is largely Vietnamese, but the shops seem to carry a mix of Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese ingredients. I’m pretty sure you can find all three varieties of soy sauce in the neighborhood–just to echo what others have already said.

  21. Thanks for letting us know, Mary!

  22. That looks beyond delicious. Might have to make it tonight!

  23. YUM. I keep hearing how wonderful this cookbook is. Will have to check it out. This recipe sounds (and looks) a lot like an amazing shrimp dish I used to order when we lived in S.F. Really complex and delicious. Being a wimp, I had to request that they make it “mild.” When it comes to spicy foods, my taste buds say “yes!” but my stomach screams “noooo!” ;)

  24. Made this tonight – SO GOOD! I’m on a quest to find tofu recipes that my partner will eat – finally I’ve found one. I’m not a huge fan of black pepper, so used a mix of black pepper, red pepper flakes and Hungarian paprika. Served with rice (as you suggested) and steam spinach. So, so good! Thank you!

  25. that looks like an awesome stir fry. going meatless for a day will be a cinch with this dish.

  26. Made this last night…it was absolutely HEAVENLY. We used Hodo Soy Tofu (made here in Berkeley, find it if you can, it’s amazing). Man oh man. Note to self: next time, wash hands after slicing those chilies, would you?

  27. Thanks for testing this one for us. I want to make everything in that cookbook, and now I know which one is next!!

  28. How did I not think of this – the secret to delicious tofu is shallow frying and a stick of butter. Sounds much more sinfully delicious than I would have thought for soy. Want…

  29. I think you can leave the soy sauce stress out from this marvellous recipe! Sweet soy + light should do the trick if you’re not able to avail yourself to the dark soy sauce. Sweet soy sauce – or kecap manis as they call it in M’sia – is close to the dark variety (which is sometimes sold as a sweet flavour). The difference is the density of sweetness.

    I’ve never made black pepper sauce from scratch before, so this is something great to look forward to! Thanks!

  30. Thanks, Rabbit- I planned on just doing that going forward. Thanks for confirming it should work.

  31. this looks amazing!
    I know it’s vegetarian and this totally defeats the point, but would it be a crime for me to use chicken instead? (and i’m actually guessing I would use less butter?).

  32. Hi Elizabeth,
    You could totally use chicken, it would be great. You could reduce the butter a little if you like, I did when I made it with tofu. I think this is pretty forgiving and minor changes will still make for a delicious dish.

  33. Thank you for this recipe. I love cooking with tofu and always trying to find new ways of cooking it. This one looks irresistable.

  34. A fabulous recipe. Beautifully done, flavorful and versatile. I’d been on an anti tofu kick for awhile (boredom and over use), this recipe reminded me to put it back in my repertoire.
    Thank you

  35. OH MY GOD this was delicious! Tofu isn’t usually my thing, but I picked up a bunch from my local asian market and made this a couple days ago. Far and away the best tofu dish I’ve ever had. I can’t wait to make it again. I was pretty nervous with all the black pepper, but it was totally perfect. Wow. Just wow!

    I posted a couple pictures here:

  36. This was amazing! I did change a couple things, I used just 2 tablespoons butter to start. I didn’t have shallots on hand so I made due with fine diced yellow onion. Also so it had more sauce I added a table spoons of butter with the soy sauce. Instead of scallions I added red and green juliene peppers at the end with the tofu and served over brown rice.

  37. The verdict is in. We will have this again. Will cut the butter, I think that’s fine if you have either a seasoned frying pan, wok, or are using a non-stick pan. The problem is the chillies. We struggled without knowing what type of chillies. We used four (not de-seeded) Santa Fe’s from our garden. It was almost too hot. We will decrease the number of peppers if they are out of our garden.

  38. just made this! so delicious, best tofu I’ve ever made. I also added green beans and honey. I also used just regular soy sauce. its seriously to die for!!!

  39. Hannah, great! So glad you liked it too. It is one of the best recipes, ever. Enjoy!

  40. just made this. what a thrill to learn how to do something like this. it took two of us an hour and a half to make, but we’re glad we did. next time, I’m going to ease up on the black pepper, maybe do half. thanks so much!

  41. i have a question about the butter. what’s it for?
    a stick seems like a lot. whenever making asian stir fry, it’s never ocurred to me to use butter and i’m curious about it.
    thank you!

  42. Lan- You need the flavor and fat from the butter to help mellow-out all of that black pepper. It is a serious amount of black pepper. The fat from the butter helps cut it. You can use a little less, but trust me you need it.

  43. I made this over the weekend, it is now my favorite tofu recipe! Even more flavorful as leftovers for lunch the next day. So much flavor! I will make it again, next time the only change will be to add some roasted nuts for some crunch, either roasted peanuts or cashews. Great recipe!

  44. Just made this tonight for a couple of girlfriends. It is SOOOO packed with flavor!! I used two seeded jalapenos, and only half the amount of black pepper, and I really liked it this way. Next time I might use all 4 peppers and keep the black pepper at half. As for the soy, I used all regular kikkoman and added 3 tablespoons of agave nectar total and did not add caster sugar (I was just using what I had on hand). It was perfectly sweet, spicy, crunchy, salty, chewy, and just PLAIN DELICIOUS! I served over quinoa with a side stir-fried collard greens. Great tofu dish for any tofu skeptics out there.

  45. found one thing to do with the sweet soy sauce if you buy it just for this recipe…popcorn popped in sesame oil and veg oil and topped with butter and sweet soy sauce heated/melted together in a saucepan. going to add togarashi next time. so good.

  46. brilliant, emily! thanks for sharing.

  47. This was delicious. I had this last night and tossed cubed and pressed tofu in 1 TB olive oil, then baked it crispy (to save the calories of frying it), and used only regular soy sauce. I also added a bell pepper, a leek and a jalapeno (i had no green onions or chiles on hand!) and it was so tasty with brown rice. Albeit spicy, just the way I like it!

  48. Em, I think you have invented a new dish! It sounds delicious.

  49. I made this using slivered sweet red bell pepper instead of the hot chilies, and used dried red pepper flakes. I couldn’t bring myself to use a stick of butter in this healthy tofu dish and substituted canola oil – a couple of tbsps – instead. It was heaven on earth! I am making it yet again tonight it is gorgeous, and tastes like you got it at a restaurant!

  50. Is it supposed to be 4 dried chilis? I made with with fresh 1 red jalapeno and 2 fresh thai small chilis and it was BLAZING hot! Good but really hot! Also, is it cornstarch? I read somewhere the cornflour in Britian is the same as our cornstarch. thanks!

  51. Hey Kelsey- Blazing hot! Well, it will just depend on the chiles you have and how hot they are. You can adjust amount to control heat. Aye! Yes, cornstarch. How did I not catch that before now? Sorry! Fixed.

  52. I made this for friends, including a vegan so I swapped in Olive Oil for the butter. I will say it was good, but it needs a lot of adjustments. The 3 different soy sauces are completely unnecessary, you can get a complex flavor with traditional soy sauce and honey yes would be a good addition. My main problem was that it was realllllly dry. The tofu could be cut smaller, but I needed more of this sauce. I improvised adding more oil and soy sauce to get it more wet, but over all I was underwhelmed. Also….NOT SPICY. What gives?

  53. Hey Juliet- I don’t know what gives, we certainly had different experiences with this recipe. I am guessing that much of it comes from your substitution of olive oil for the butter, which I don’t think would work at all. Completely different flavor profiles, and levels of richness. Mine definitely wasn’t dry. As I said in the post, the 3 soy sauces aren’t necessary- I make it with two. As far as the spice, all I can imagine is that your peppercorns had lost flavor? With 4 tablespoons of pepper, it should be pretty peppery. Or your red chiles just weren’t spicy?

  54. This is awesome, but I would probably half the amount of black pepper! Me and my wife love spicy food but the amount of pepper is just too much to the point where its almost inedible after a few bites!

    I think it would make an amazing marinade for some sticky slow cooked pepper ribs as well!

  55. Love this recipe, and well done for hunting out the different soy sauces! I do have some alternatives if it’s hard for people to find the sauces – you can use ketchap manis, which is a think soy sauce but with a sweet flavour, or light or dark say sauce with a couple of tea spoons of palm sugar, and if you aren’t vegetarian, try adding 1 tablespoon of oyster sauce in the recipe. This will really lift the flavours. but please beware with all the soy sauces, it can turn out very salty. :)

  56. yum! I’ve recently started cooking a lot of tofu, and I have to try this recipe!

  57. This recipe is so amazing. Thank you!

  58. Dave in Limburg NL ... says:

    August 14th, 2013 at 7:43 am

    This recipe is to die for. It has become a staple in my Asian dishes, and every single person who has experienced this agrees … it is top-notch! Yotam Ottolenghi deserves a Roman Triumph for this one.

  59. Great Recipe.!!

  60. Chiming in late, but I think the has-to-be eaten immediately is an Ottolenghi thing – grilled zucchini & basil salad was awful leftover

  61. i can’t believe it’s taken me this long to tell you this: i asked you back in 2011 why you needed butter for this dish. (i may have internally scoffed at it… just kidding, i verbally said it out loud and tweeted about it…) well. i apologize. i’ve made this dish a few times, and it’s delightful. i use ghee for the lack of lactose and seriously. thanks. and sorry, for doubting, and for being late in telling you about it. let’s be friends?

  62. I initially found this recipe a number of years ago on Epicurious, and started making it then, and I just stumbled across it here. Just wanted to mention, the sweetened soy sauce (kecap manis) is sooo worth it, and raises this dish to a whole new level; I initially skipped it, but then I eventually made some… just….wow, huge difference. If you can’t find kecap manis, or just want to save money, it is actually very easy to make, here are some very straightforward directions:

    Also, while I wouldn’t recommend changing the butter quantity, personally, if you must… I’d suggest cutting it with sesame oil, rather than olive oil; the flavour and richness work fairly well. Be sure to keep the majority as butter, though, that is what gives the sauce it’s velvety texture and flavour, and it balances wonderfully with all the complex spices.

What do you think?