One of the most hotly contested issues in the vegan community isn't whether products containing palm oil are considered vegan or whether it's OK to wear vintage leather—it's about what qualifies as a tofu scramble. The breakfast dish is pretty serious business to my fellow vegans. Cubes of deep-fried tofu, pan-fried strips, veggie-filled mixes, classically bare bones "nooch"-seasoned dishes, and other variations of the bean curd breakfast are available on menus and in home kitchens all under the banner of “tofu scramble.” And yet the base of the dish, aside from the clear element of tofu, remains in question. I’ll never forget the time my partner and I ordered a tofu scramble from a restaurant menu and asked to hold the egg that was inexplicably in the dish. “Well, what would we scramble then?” the perturbed waiter asked.
People have been eating tofu for breakfast in several different variations for ages, including the traditional Japanese hiayakko and the Chinese dou fu nao. In North America, though, the first use “tofu scramble” to describe a vegan breakfast dish approximating eggs is in the 1973 cookbook It’s Your World, published by the Seventh Day Adventist church. Since then, it’s been a vegan staple—and often one of the first dishes that new vegans learn how to make. The skill, like a rite of passage, gets passed down by a vegan friend or is honed through many eager, bland, watery attempts to perfect it. “I can’t remember where I learned. I think it was just one of the things I KNEW was very vegan and started eating it as soon as I eliminated eggs from my diet,” says Hot For Food blogger Lauren Toyota.
Relatively convenient vegan breakfast items that require neither loads of prep or speciality ingredients are few and far between, so I understand the delight when something on the brunch menu is vegan and doesn’t involve leaving off cheese, a fried egg, cream sauces, or anything else with any actual flavor. I also understand the frustration when a less-than-satisfactory dish comes out of the kitchen. “I was served cubed tofu [at a restaurant] that was still mostly white-looking and called scramble. That is just wrong! It should resemble scrambled eggs,” says Toyota. Everyone I interviewed was unanimous about one thing: Tofu scramble should never, ever be cubed. Or, in the very succinct words of vegan chocolatier and trained vegan chef Lagusta Yearwood: “No! Oh god no.”
Tofu scramble is usually the one default that omnivorous restaurants, and very patient and accommodating family members, will actually attempt to make for vegans. It’s one of the easiest vegan recipes to make and also one of the easiest vegan recipes to screw up—namely, by neglecting to appropriately season the tofu. “You absolutely have to add things to tofu to make it interesting because on its own it is a very bland ingredient,” says vegan cookbook author Sarah Kramer. This is also Toyota’s primary tip for a successful scramble. “I don’t know why but I find people are afraid of seasoning. Maybe they just don’t know how to use it and how much to add, but it’s also a matter of taste and preference, so experiment,” she urges.
Feeling ready to take on your first eggless scramble or perfect your technique? Here are a few tips from the experts. Start with a medium or firm tofu—never silken. “Medium/firm tofu will hold it's shape and won't be too gooey,” says Kramer. Press the tofu with your hands or some paper towel before crumbling to expel excess liquid and allow the tofu to soak up the most possible seasoning. When breaking up the tofu,“You want it to be the consistency of a cottage cheese,” Kramer suggests. “Most people use a fork or some other implement to scramble the tofu but I like to squish it between my fingers and crumble it.”
Heat oil in a pan and add the tofu and any vegetables you might be including. Yearwood espouses a thorough cooking of all ingredients, “Don’t just toss everything in a pan and let it steam. Cook the tougher, longer-cooking vegetables longer so they have time to really cook—and let the tofu get nice and cooked through, too.”
And finally, season the heck out of that scramble! Toyota’s version has cheesy-tasting nutritional yeast, turmeric, paprika, and sea salt; Kramer prefers a pinch of turmeric “for a yellow, egg-like color,” curry, and a bit of tomato salsa; and Yearwood is a fan of garlic, turmeric, nutritional yeast, salt and pepper, paprika, and sometimes fresh herbs, adding, “Tahini is really nice, too.”
Other than needing to be actually scrambled and well-seasoned, the beauty of the tofu scramble is that it’s so open to interpretation and easy to adapt based on what you have on hand. It’s basically the vegan breakfast version of a fridge-clearing soup. “I say the more the merrier,” Toyota says, “but it’s also a matter of preference. Get the base right and then do whatever your heart desires.”