Tofu's American public persona has come a long way in the last few decades. Once the sole province of Asian restaurants and early members of the Berkeley coop, the centuries-old protein powerhouse has comfortably assumed its place mainstream culinary culture, which is to say, everyone's had it and you can buy it at Kroger. And yet tofu —magnificent fried, grilled, smoked, raw, or fermented —still somehow hasn’t quite overcome its reputation as "the vegetarian option" and "something my dad won’t eat."
And that, says Andrea Nguyen, is our collective mistake. As the author of Asian Tofu, she's on a mission —not to "convert" haters into fans, but rather to open them up to tofu's exquisite possibilities. And if a few die-hard carnivores happened to reevaluate their tastes along the way, well, so much the better. Not that one must choose a single protein allegiance: one of the most frustrating American misconceptions about tofu is that it’s a "food of deprivation," something for desperate vegetarians and people who hate fun. But tofu, Nguyen is quick to point out, can be very fun —and while it does make an excellent protein source for vegetarians, it also works extremely well alongside meat. Consider, for example, the current craze for Ma Po tofu (or doufu), a Sichuan dish that pairs bean curd with ground beef or pork. (Nguyen also notes that my morning tofu scramble could be vastly improved if I’d just add an egg, and that bacon makes a rather nice accouterment for a tofu burger.) So why, then, are we not all —vegetarians and omnivores alike —eating tofu all the time?
As Nguyen sees it, there are three popular misunderstandings standing between a lot of us and tofu-induced bliss. "One, that it's bad for you, two, that it’s overly processed, and three, that it’s bland." She knocks them down one by one: soy —especially in the form of tofu, which is minimally processed and uses the whole soybean ("it's not the same thing as these soy isolates!") —is actually pretty good for you. (The American Cancer Society agrees) Which bring us to two: tofu is really, really minimally processed. "There are like three ingredients that go into tofu," Nguyen says. And then there’s the bland thing.
"The challenge for people to wrap their heads around," she laughs, "is to learn how to cook with it and how to season it, how to treat it just like any other protein." In general, we do not eat raw pork tenderloin and unseasoned chicken breast and expect them to be delicious. Tofu is no different. You can eat it raw —technically, it's already cooked —but, unless you are currently a toddler, you probably don’t want to. If there is one secret to good tofu, it is this: do something to it.
What should that something be? The possibilities are virtually endless, depending on what you’re going for (a Korean stew? A Malaysian appetizer?) and what kind of tofu you're working with. And there are choices: silken and firm and extra-firm and super-firm, fermented and fried and puffed and dried (the latter of these are widely available at Asian supermarkets). Drizzle fresh silken tofu with soy sauce or olive oil and coarse salt, Nguyen suggests, likening it to a panna cotta. Take super-firm smoked tofu, slice it into delicate strips (angle your knife at 45 degrees for extra-tender slices), and savor it on sandwich. Deep-fry golden-crusted tofu triangles to tease out soy's nutty flavor. Pan-fry it and take your instant ramen to the next level. Age and ferment it, and you've got an umami-rich condiment.
But for the tofu beginner, Nguyen has a few pearls of tofu wisdom.
- Start with a basic block of firm tofu, the kind that comes "floating in a moat of water" (the water moat is important). It's tender enough to suck up flavors easily, and firm enough not to fall apart while cooking —an ideal gateway tofu.
- You do not need a tofu press. You, like me, may believe you need a tofu press, but you, like me, do not actually need a tofu press. Embarrassed, I confess to Nguyen that I have in fact been lusting after tofu presses on the internet for several months now. "It's such a waste!" she cries. "Don’t even do it!" This is reassuring —unlike my love of tofu, my counter space is limited. So, save your cash, and save your counter. Also, save the hours you would have spent pressing your tofu. If you run into a recipe that does legitimately require a press ("pressed tofu,"perhaps), you can get by with some baking sheets and some 28 oz food cans.
- Drain your tofu. While you don't need to press your tofu (see above), you do want to get the water out somehow, thus preparing the tofu to suck up flavor. "It's as if you wrung out a sponge," she explains. The tofu was filled with water, you dry it out, and, refreshed and newly absorbent, it's ready to suck up seasonings. Nguyen advocates a few draining methods, depending on the dish —for the recipe below, you use boiling water to open the tofu's pores —but the simplest is to place the tofu on a waffle-weave towel and waiting 10 minutes.
If you're looking for evidence of just how not-bland —and not-vegetarian —tofu can be, look no further than Nguyen's recipe for Ma Po Tofu. "It was among the first Chinese recipes I mastered," she writes, "and is one I still make today." Follow in her footsteps.
(A note: chile bean sauce, while not necessarily available at your local grocery store, is readily available at Asian markets, and well worth the trip.)
Spicy Tofu with Beef and Sichuan Peppercorn Ma Po Dou Fu From Asian Tofu, by Andrea Nguyen
Serves 4 with 2 or 3 other dishes
- 14 to 16 ounces medium or medium-firm tofu
- 1 generous teaspoon Sichuan peppercorn
- 3 tablespoons canola oil
- 6 ounces ground beef or pork, fattier kind preferred, roughly chopped to loosen
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon dried chile flakes, optional
- 1 tablespoon fermented black beans, optional
- 2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons chile bean sauce, Pixian kind preferred
- 1 generous teaspoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons light (regular) soy sauce
- 2 large green onions, white and green parts, cut on the diagonal into pieces about 11/2 inches long
- 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 3 tablespoons water
- Cut the tofu into 1/2-inch cubes and put into a bowl. Bring a kettle of water to a rolling boil. Turn off the heat and when the boiling subsides, pour water over the tofu to cover. Set aside for 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, measure out 11/3 cups of water (the stuff you just boiled is fine) and set aside near the stove. You’ll be using it later for the sauce.
- In a large wok or skillet, toast the peppercorn over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until richly fragrant and slightly darkened; you may see a wisp of smoke. Let it cool briefly, then pound with a mortar and pestle or grind in a spice grinder. Set aside. Drain the tofu in a strainer or colander and put it near the stove. As with all stir-fries, assemble your ingredients next to the stove.
- Heat the oil in the wok or skillet over high heat. Add the beef, stirring and mashing into small pieces until crumbly and cooked through, about 2 minutes. Add the ginger, chile flakes, fermented black beans, and chile sauce. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until the beef is a rich reddish-brown color and the chile sauce has turned the oil slightly red. Add the sugar and soy sauce, stir to combine, then add the tofu. Gently stir or give the wok a shake to combine without breaking up the tofu much.
- Pour in the 11/3 cups water you set aside earlier. Bring to a vigorous simmer, and cook for about 3 minutes to allow the tofu to absorb the flavors of the sauce.
- Taste the sauce and add a pinch of salt or sugar, if needed. Add the green onion and stir to combine. Give the cornstarch one last stir, then pour enough into the wok to thicken the sauce. You may not need to use it all. In Sichuan, the sauce is more soupy than gravylike. Sprinkle in the ground peppercorn, give the mixture one last stir to incorporate, then transfer to a shallow bowl. Serve immediately with lots of hot rice.