This Three Cup (San Bei) tofu ‘三杯豆腐 Sān bēi dòu fu) is packed with the aromatic Thai Basil and drenched in a droolworthy sauce.
It is one of my family’s favorite Taiwanese dishes to order when eating out. Although the ones I had normally used silken tofu, it’s just as tasty if not better with firm tofu.
What is Three-cup tofu (San Bei tofu)?
Three-cup is a direct translation from San Bei (三杯). It’s made from the three main ingredients: soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, and cooking wine and it doesn’t really require a cup of each, that’ll be too much. However, you’ll want to aim for equal (or as close) parts of these ingredients.
Three-cup (San Bei) Tofu Key ingredients
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Thai Basil – gives this dish that aromatic flavor which goes so well with sautéed ginger and garlic. It’s highly recommended to use Thai Basil, but can be substituted with sweet basil.
Ginger – one of my favorite roots! Slightly charred ginger in toasted sesame oil is so tasty and when paired with soy sauce, it releases a wonderful taste that goes well with rice. Don’t miss out on the garlic too.
Toasted Sesame Oil – I love how well this oil and ginger go together. This combo is one of the bases of my favorite fried rice or egg dishes (before vegan days) during my confinement period. Nagoya is the brand I used for more than 20 years.
Cooking Wine – This MiChiu is made from rice and adds a delicious savory taste to a meal. This is the brand I used but other similar Michiu works just as great.
How to make Three Cup (San Bei) Tofu
Step 1: Prepare the sauce
Mix together soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, sugar, Michiu, and water in a bowl until well-combined. Set aside for later.
Step 2: Prepare and cook the tofu
I’ve tried using soft tofu, firm tofu, and frozen tofu for this recipe and they all yield great results. So pick your favorite tofu and prepare using your preferred method.
Coat tofu generously with cornstarch, then brush a thin layer of oil on the tofu.
Preheat your air-fryer to 390F (Fries settings). I also greased my air-fryer to create a crispier texture.
Place a layer of tofu slices onto the greased air-fryer. Air-fry the tofu slices until golden brown with a shake of flip in between if needed.
You can pan-fry, air-fry, or bake the tofu. To bake the tofu, prepare the tofu the similar ways then bake at 400F-425F until golden brown with a flip in between if needed.
Step 3: Put everything together
Heat a large skillet and add the oil. Sauté ginger slices until aromatic or when you see the sides start to turn crispy or brown. Add the garlic and chile, then continue to sauté until garlic is fragrant.
Pour in the sauce and cook until the sugar has melted. Add the tofu and toss to combine.
Now, if you prefer to use just the skillet, then, add the Thai basil and continue to cook the tofu until the sauce thickened.
Step 4 (optional): Finish up in a clay pot for maximum flavor
This is an optional step but I love how this final step gives the tofu a more charred look especially once the sugar has caramelized at the bottom of the pot.
To finish up the cooking in a clay pot, heat a clay pot over low-medium heat. Add a drizzle of oil and sauté green onions and Thai basil until fragrant.
Transfer the tofu mixture into the pot and top with the remaining Thai basil. Cover and cook for another 1-2 minutes.
Serve warm with a bowl of rice.
How to cook tofu – 2 ways
Method 1: Pan-fried
1. Cut tofu into cubes, pressed with a paper towel to remove as much moisture as possible but not too dry. You’ll still need some moisture cornstarch can stick to it.
2. Coat tofu generously with cornstarch and gently press cornstarch onto the tofu so they stick together
3. Pan-fry tofu in low-medium heat until crispy on all sides. Try not to flip before the bottom layer turns golden brown or crispy.
Method 2: Air-fried
Follow the same steps 1 and 2 from above to coat the tofu with cornstarch.
Then, brush a thin layer of oil on the tofu. To create a more even golden brown and crispiness, I grease the inner air-fryer rack as well.
Preheat the air-fryer to 390F which is the fries settings. Then, carefully transfer the tofu slices onto the greased rack.
Since my air-fryer is smaller, I air-fried my tofu in a few batches. Air-fry for 4- 8 minutes, checking periodically until golden brown.
This Three cup (San Bei) tofu is:
- Easy to make
- Kids friendly
- Customizable (replace tamari for gluten-free or remove chili for non-spicy version)
If you try this recipe, I would love to hear your feedback and see your beautiful re-creation. Leave me a comment, rate it, and tag @woon.heng and #woonheng to your photos on Instagram or Facebook. Happy cooking, friends!
Three Cup (San Bei) Tofu – 三杯豆腐
- 14 oz [397g]firm tofu drained
- 8-10 slices [35g] ginger
- 5 cloves garlic sliced
- 1 red jalapenõ chopped (or any chili)
- 1 cup packed fresh Thai basil sub with basil or adjust to your preference
- corn starch for coating
- a handful of chopped scallion/green onion
- oil for cooking
- 3 tablespoons Chinese cooking wine Michiu or use rice wine/dry sherry/vegetable broth
- 3 tablespoons light soy sauce or tamari
- 3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
- ½ tablespoon sugar
- ⅓ cup [80g] water
- Mix the sauce ingredients in a bowl until well combined and set aside.
- To prepare the tofu, pat the tofu dry with paper towels and cut into cubes or rectangle slices, about 1cmm thick.
- Place ¼ cup corn starch in a shallow plate or baking sheet pan. Then, coat the slices generously with corn starch, making sure all sides have a thin layer of starch.
- Preheat the air-fryer using the fries settings (390F).
- Brush the top side of the tofu with a thin layer of oil. Then, grease the inner air-fryer rack.
- Using a tong or a pair of chopsticks, transfer tofu slices onto the greased rack in a single layer.
- Air-fry tofu slices until golden brown, about 4-8 minutes. Check periodically and flip if needed. To pan-fry the tofu, please check the section 'Crispy Tofu – 2 ways' or notes below.
- Transfer the air-fried tofu to a cookie rack to cool while you work on the next batch.
- To cook the tofu, heat a large skillet with 2 tablespoons of oil. Then, sauté ginger slices until the sides turn crispy and aromatic.
- Add the garlic and chopped chile and continue to cook until the garlic is fragrant.
- Pour in the sauce and cook until the sugar has melted.
- Add the tofu slices then toss everything to combine. If you prefer not to serve it in a clay pot, then add the Thai basil along with the tofu and continue to cook until the sauce has reduced.
- To cook the tofu in claypot: Heat a claypot and add a drizzle of oil. Then, sauté green onions and half of the Thai basil until aromatic.
- Transfer the tofu into the clay pot then top with the remaining Thai basil, cover and cook it over low heat for another 1- 2 minutes. This step will create a charred bottom which give the tofu a more flavorful taste.
- Turn off the heat and serve warm with rice.
- How to Pan-fry tofu
- Prepare tofu similar to Step 2 and 3
- Heat a large skillet with a thin layer of oil
- Shallow pan-fry the tofu until golden brown. Remove & set aside.
- Continue to Step 9