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How to Conquer Tofu

February 21, 2011

Since it seems like my instructive post on stir-frying vegetables was well-received, I thought I would do a post along a similar vein.

My good friend Tim commented, asking:

Hey Lida, I used your stir-frying tips tonight and it worked great! I’ve tried to cook with tofu in the past and been less than successful – any tips? I really don’t know where to start…

What a loaded question. In my opinion, asking how to “cook with tofu” is similar with “what do I do with eggs?” And that’s really no exaggeration– just as eggs can be firm (hard-boiled or preserved), custardy (steamed or poached), or softly scrambled (stir-fried), tofu can take on all these texures– even more so, since it absorb the flavor of whatever sauce it’s added to.

Types of tofu (hard to soft):

Your standard grocery store will carry firm tofu. Firm and extra-firm are better for dishes intending to stand in for meat, or at least have a more substantial consistency. This is the kind of tofu you’ll want to drain and press between two plates with a heavy object on top for at least half an hour. It also benefits from marinating for an hour and then broiling or grilling. My favorite recipes for extra firm tofu come from one of my favorite cookbooks: The Flexitarian Kitchen, which has dishes like lemon thyme grilled tofu and crispy tofu pressed with garlic and mint. Just don’t serve these at an Asian meal– it’ll confuse everyone.

Now, going a notch softer, we have medium firm tofu, which is the most versatile. I like to use it for stir-fries and one pot meals, where the tofu contrasts nicely with the texture of the vegetables and makes everything heartier. My favorite usage would probably be in a curry, like Gingerbread Curry or Yellow Curry, where it soaks up the creamy coconut milk. Most Thai restaurants will fry their tofu in advance; I like the crunchiness, but not the oil, so I lightly sear my tofu in peanut oil, turning with chopsticks so all the sides cook evenly. When the tofu is browned, set it aside and start the curry. Add it at the very end.

Soft tofu is not the same as silken, so don’t be fooled! The two are interchangeable, but the mouthfeel is entirely different. Both soft and silken can be cubed (after draining, very important) gently with a sharp knife so that they don’t crumble. Whatever you add soft tofu to, you have to slide it into the sauce gently, so make sure everything else is heated through first. You’re not really going to be able to stir-fry unless you want it to disintegrate.

Possible uses for soft tofu are miso soup and stir-fries like bok choy and shiitake mushrooms with glass noodles.

Silken tofu is wonderful for a cold appetizer, drizzled with soy sauce and sprinkled with bonito flakes. For a traditional Chinese “salad,” try Tofu with Thousand Year Old Egg. Another comfort food of mine is any kind of Korean tofu stew with kimchi, soy bean paste, and optional egg and seafood. If I had any Korean ingredients on hand, that would definitely be on this week’s agenda.

The softest of the softest is Chinese tofu “brains,” or dou fu nao, which you can only really get on on the street or in a restaurant. The vendor scoops the freshest, lightest, creamiest curds out of a massive vat of fresh tofu. It’s not cubed– just eaten in a savory soy sauce-based gravy with chili oil and pickled vegetables on the side. In Shanghai, where the cuisine tends towards the blander and sweeter, it’s served simply with dried shrimp and scallions.

Finally, vegan substitutions. I really try to gravitate away from this kind of thing– not because I’m anti-veganism, but because I’m Asian– but if you must, you can make “scrambled tofu,” puree silken tofu to make salad dressings, smoothies, etc. I did, on one occasion, have a surprisingly delicious vegan chocolate pudding pie that I assume was made in a similar fashion.

The soy bean is a remarkable thing: soy milk, tofu, tempeh, tofu skin (yuba), spicy fermented dou fu ru, tofu “noodles…” This only hit the tip of the iceberg, the first of many soy posts to come.

Too often, tofu is thought of as a meat alternative– but it is so much more than that. In China, most tofu dishes are not even vegetarian (ma po dou fu usually has pork, and silken tofu is divine with whole fish). Tofu is valued for its light texture: we call it nen in Chinese, but there really is no English equivalent.

Under no circumstances would I ever force anyone to choose between cheese and tofu, two of the wonders of the world, but I think you know what I would pick. Rice and tofu or bread and cheese?

If only cows gave soy milk…

Tofu Recipes

One Comment leave one →
  1. Anita permalink
    October 9, 2011 1:58 am

    Hi there. I just happened upon your website – and I am so glad I did. I just made a batch of the eggs with tomato with some black noodles – it was a delicious meal.

    I look forward to exploring your site some more.

    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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