Celebrating tofu

"Do you like tofu?" is a rarely used interrogative. Tofu is so broadly disdained; you may as well ask someone if they'd like to smell your fart. It has been tagged with myriad guilt-by-association disses, from being a weird, if innocuous, hippie food, to an epithet denoting godless New York Times-reading liberals, and even, as was circulating a few years back in some conservative circles, as a poison that turns kids gay.

To me, and to Asians in general, tofu doesn't indicate a lifestyle choice, it's just friggin' food — an important food with its own history and complexity, and deserving of respect. But worse than any political connotation, is that it's often dismissed as an insipid raw material existing merely to be transformed into a stand-in for meat. This notion never made sense to me, since 1) if the concept of eating animals is morally problematic, simulating the act is bad too, and 2) tofu does a very bad job of tasting like meat. Tofurky is a particularly heinous offender. Anyone who claims it resembles turkey in the slightest way is straight-up lying. That's not to discount how useful tofu can be, particularly to supplement restrictive diets, but regarding tofu and meat as mutually exclusive is not seeing the forest for the trees.

This sort of pigeonholing seems hopelessly widespread. The other day, I happened to be watching a cooking competition show on the now-insufferable Food Network (couldn't find the remote) wherein tofu was presented as a "challenging" ingredient. One of the judges, a marginally famous chef, lauded one dish primarily because it tasted "like something other than tofu, which is a good thing," eliciting a hearty round of commiserating chuckles.

To be fair, eating tofu isn't exactly a party in one's mouth. Its texture ranges broadly from creamy and barely solid to dense and chewy, making it exceptionally versatile. What flavor it does have on its own is admittedly pretty timid, and thus invites being imbued with outside flavors, meaty or otherwise. But even in highly seasoned environments tofu tends to retain a detectable tofu-ness, which hinders its success as a faker.

Japanese hiyayakko, a good example of a very basic preparation, is a block of fresh silken tofu topped with grated ginger, dried fish shavings, soy sauce, and scallions, components that are meant to complement and educe the faintly sweet, vegetal flavor of the soybeans from which tofu is derived. On the other end of this spectrum, fermented or "stinky" tofu is the Asian analogue to aged cheese, having been treated with shrimp brine and processed by microbes into something that is said to smell like warm rotting death, repugnant to the uninitiated but delectable to aficionados. In between, of course, tofu is used in any of a bajillion applications, and, yes, was even touted by Buddhist monks as a means to forgo eating meat because of its high protein content. But I doubt they painted it flesh-colored and molded it into animal shapes before consumption.

Stinky tofu aside, fresh tofu generally has more flavor. And the freshest possible tofu is the one you make yourself. There are only two components, soy milk and a coagulant, or a chemical that will separate the protein and fat from the water in the soy milk. The texture of tofu is highly dependent upon which chemical is doing the coagulating, temperature, and the protein content of the soy milk. And that's where it gets tricky, since store-bought soy milk almost always has sweeteners and other flavors added, and the chemicals traditionally used for coagulation (which impart minimal undesired flavor) are pretty much impossible to find in this area.

Any Asian supermarket should carry pure, unadulterated soy milk, which is perfectly fine for making tofu. Otherwise, you can be hard-core and make your own, and that means procuring soybeans, which is actually pretty easy. They can be found at Asian supermarkets for roughly $1 per pound. The beans are then soaked, liquefied in a blender, cooked, and strained, resulting in genuine fresh soy milk, characterized by a distinctly fresh, almost grassy aroma that you just don't get with store-bought.

Nigari, which is made from seawater and composed primarily of magnesium chloride, is a traditional coagulant; calcium chloride is another. Apparently they are both used as de-icing salts and can be found at auto parts stores. Similarly, gypsum or calcium sulfate, another coagulant, is available as a soil additive for gardening, and is the primary material in drywall.

But I couldn't find any local sources for food-safe versions of these chemicals, with the exception of gypsum, which is used in beer and wine making, and is available through Maryland Homebrew in Columbia, Md., though that's kind of a hike for city dwellers. Luckily, there is another effective coagulant that is both common and cheap: magnesium sulfate, aka epsom salt. It produces great texture, but leaves a slight bitter aftertaste in the tofu. Adding a bit of sea salt offsets that and improves curd-formation to boot.

Once you've got the proper ingredients, actual execution is straightforward. Separate out the curds and then strain them, either by gravity or by force, in order to compact the curds into a single form and expel water until the desired firmness is achieved. This can be done in a tofu press — basically a container with drainage holes and a tight-fitting lid — but a strainer works too. (Directions for making an ad hoc version plus my tofu recipe.)

In the end, you will have a horribly misshapen, but cohesive chunk of coalesced soybean essence, with actual aroma and flavor, and perhaps a better appreciation of what tofu really is or, more importantly, isn't.

Exotic oddities Our local Asian markets have more than soy milk 

Ben Thanh Asian Market 27651 John R, in Farnum Plaza, Madison Heights; 248-546-6844: Yes, they sell soy milk, but while you're there a number of other things are sure to jump out at you. Last we went, they had an outstanding deal as well on Chef's Choice brand coconut milk, 13.5 ounces for 69 cents. They also stock the tender, younger cousin of bok choy called pak choy, for $1.99 a pound. Bamboo tip, the choice part of the plant, retails for $1.49 a pound. Other impulse buys include 20 bags of Chinese green tea for 99 cents, or 50 spring roll wrappers (12 ounces) for only 99 cents; and you can pick up Mama Sita's fried spring roll seasoning mix, 69 cents for enough to season probably 100 spring rolls. Tempura-heads can get Caravelle brand tempura batter mix for less than $2, probably enough to make a big ol' basket of tempura-fried meat or veggies. Weirder buys include Atip brand green jackfruit in brine and, near the counter, bags of Marco Polo brand shrimp snacks, on sale for 89 cents.

Saigon Market 30573 John R, Madison Heights; 248-589-0831: Yes, they carry soy milk for $1.99 a 1-liter bottle (sweetened and non-sweetened), or even dry bags of soybeans if you want to start from scratch. But the other groceries are fun to look at, running toward the Vietnamese end of the spectrum, with lots of the fresh greens looking deliciously tender and utterly unfamiliar. The tubs of live blue crabs and live crawfish, restocked weekly, give that part of the store an aquatic feel. Their produce includes one of the most unusual fruits ever, the durian — spiny, with a sweet taste at odds with its foul smell.

China Merchandise Corporation 31722 John R, Madison Heights; 248-588-0450: They do carry the soy milk, sure, but they also stock such unusual vegetables as arrowhead and arrowroot, as well as one of the more unusual Chinese delicacies — preserved, cooked, salted duck eggs. And perhaps you'll wonder if 1 billion people really can be wrong when you examine their Vegetarian Turnip Cake. In this case, the turnip is a radish, and the cake is a rice cake. For $2.99, you can buy eight cakes flavored with this humble salad vegetable. Their live turtles are just dollars per pound. On our last visit, one patron suggested that a 2-pound turtle could run as much as $30 at a better pet store, adding, "You can eat it or keep it as a pet." The little critter, who offers a peaceful look, goes back into his tub for now, next to the tubs of crabs and other aquatic life, all awaiting the cook pot. Or have you ever had sliced, dehydrated sweet potato? A 6-ounce package is surprisingly satisfying for a buck, concentrating the sweetness of the vegetable and having a pleasing, licorice-type toughness that offers just enough resistance to the teeth. Fun little splurges include roasted watermelon seeds (12.7 ounces for $1.99) or Goldensmell wasabi powder (1.2 ounces for $1.49). Odder still are their dried anchovies, a 4-ounce package of the King Chief brand for a few bucks. A definite rule-breaker for Westerners, your snack food should never look back at you; these minnow-sized dried fish all gaze at the guilty snacker unremittingly. And would you take a gamble on a can of "Grass Jelly Drink?" 

Henry Hong writes about food for Baltimore City Paper, where this article originally appeared. Send comments to him care of [email protected]
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