When I was in college, there was a popular fast casual Korean restaurant just down the street from campus. They had a fairly extensive menu of Korean cuisine but most everyone I knew would order bulgogi every time, or occasionally bibimbap. I didn’t eat meat at the time, so all I could do was smell the delicious aroma of sesame and soy while my friends chowed down. I’m not sure I would have ordered tofu bulgogi even if it was on the menu, since I wasn’t the biggest tofu fan in those days either! But now in my adult life, I am enthusiastically embracing this vegan bulgogi recipe.
This post was originally published on 6/7/2014, and updated on 6/7/2017 with a new tofu cooking method and photos.
Years later, I still have memories of stepping into the restaurant and smelling that sweet and savory bulgogi marinade. So when a friend of mine mentioned that he had recently gone there for lunch, for old times’ sake, I decided it was about time to recreate a vegan version in my kitchen. After discovering recently that I really love the texture of tofu that’s been frozen and thawed, I knew that tofu bulgogi would be the perfect vegetarian vehicle for these Korean flavors.
I ended up finding a somewhat authentic (at least given the ingredients available to me here) recipe for beef bulgogi marinade (just an FYI for veg folks there are a lot of meat pictures in that post) and following it pretty closely to marinate my tofu. I NEVER would have guessed that crushed pear is an ingredient but it works great! I guess it’s included as a meat tenderizer, but in the tofu version it still works to add a natural, light sweetness. The main changes that I made were to swap out the refined sugar, and to add a bit of fermented hot sauce to up the umami flavor. I don’t have gochujang on hand, but I would have used it if I did. Instead I added sriracha, which I’ve come to learn is usually a good idea!
I think it came out really well! Like I said, I haven’t tried traditional bulgogi though I’ve smelled it a lot of times. But my partner and I both thought this vegan tofu bulgogi tasted great. Paired with brown rice and green beans, it made for a filling and healthy dinner. I prepared the marinade the previous evening. When I got home from work I started the rice in the pressure cooker, put the tofu in the oven, and steamed the beans for just a few minutes, and dinner was on the table in less than half an hour. Not bad at all!
The marinade will be really tasty along with whatever your favorite method is to prepare tofu :). See my recipe notes for how to turn the marinade into a sauce that you can even use with non-tofu versions, like bulgogi seitan or mushrooms (shudder). Veggie bulgogi is the best!
Vegan Tofu Bulgogi
This vegan tofu bulgogi is prepared with a traditional Korean marinade and then baked. The dish is gluten-free if tamari is used. Serve with rice and vegetables or accompaniments of choice. Instructions are for the freeze-and-marinate method described in the blog post. See notes section for a crispier version like what's pictured.
- 1 package extra-firm tofu (12 to 16 oz.; used water-packed, not vacuum-packed)
- 1/2 Asian pear (see notes)
- 1/2 small onion
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 inch fresh ginger peeled and chopped
- 1 green onion both green and white parts, chopped
- 3 tbsp soy sauce or tamari
- 2 and 1/2 tbsp coconut sugar (or brown sugar)
- 1 tbsp gochujang, sriracha, or chili garlic paste
- 1 tbsp rice vinegar
- 1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
- 1 pinch ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp finely chopped carrot
Place the drained tofu in the freezer overnight. Remove from the freezer and thaw, either at room temperature on the counter, or in the microwave for a faster option.
Press the tofu using towels, paper towels, or a tofu press, for at least 20 minutes. Slice the tofu into about 12 pieces.
Prepare the bulgogi marinade:
In a blender or food processor, blend the pear, onion, garlic, and ginger until relatively smooth (some chunks are okay).
Stir in the chopped green onion, soy sauce, coconut sugar, hot sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, black pepper, and chopped carrot, plus water if needed to thin (it shouldn't be too thick or the tofu won't absorb it as well).
Add the pressed tofu to a bowl or container and pour the marinade over it. Let marinate for up to 20 minutes (longer and it may start to fall apart).
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the tofu slices on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a Silpat, lightly sprayed with oil.
Bake for 15 minutes, flip over the tofu, and brush more of the marinade over it. Bake for another 15 minutes. Optionally, broil for 2-3 more minutes to get the edges a little crispy.
Serve hot with brown rice or another grain and cooked veggies.
ASIAN PEARS: If Asian pears aren't available in your area, substitute with another type of pear (preferably the sweetest one you can find), or 1/3 cup of diced pineapple.
NUTRITION: Nutrition facts do not include rice or vegetable accompaniments.
CRISPY TOFU: I've prepared this tofu bulgogi by multiple methods to prove its versatile deliciousness! The most recent photos in the blog post are using my crispy baked tofu method. For this method, make the following changes to the recipe:
(1) Do not freeze your tofu; instead, press it for 15-30 minutes to remove excess liquid. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, cube the tofu or cut it into sticks, and place it on a parchment-lined baking sheet. (Nope, no oil needed!) Bake for about 45 minutes, flipping once, until crispy and browned on the exterior.
(2) For the sauce, omit the pear completely; saute the onion, garlic and ginger until softened and then add the rest of the sauce ingredients and stir. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until sauce is slightly reduced and thickened. Once the tofu is done baking, toss it in the sauce and serve.
I left one of my terrible older pictures here in case any of you are feeling nostalgic 🙂 this is tofu baked using the freeze-and-marinate method. The tofu absorbs a lot more bulgogi sauce, but doesn’t get crispy (it will get fairly firm though). Tradeoffs! The choice is yours 🙂