Tofu or Not Tofu

Yes, that is a terrible headline and I am sorry for inflicting it on you. But I write in defense of bean curd, and I suspect that topic will generate some annoyance regardless of how I start. Because while I like tofu, I recognize it is not generally thought of as a sexy topic for discussion.

To be clear, I am not talking about tofu that has been turned into some sort of doppelgänger of a meat product, but rather about the thing itself. I will not pretend to be an expert on all forms of bean curd, but I can at least give you some insight into what you’ll find available here.

Tofu is more or less cheese made with soybean milk. The closest analog I know of is the Indian cheese Paneer, which can be made by adding an acid such as lemon juice to simmering milk. The acid is a coagulant that separates the curds from the whey, and after straining and pressing, one is left with a firm, fresh cheese that won’t melt when you cook it.

One day perhaps I’ll also make tofu, but for the time being I’m content to purchase the finished product. I suspect that unlike most of the pre-made Paneer I can find, commercial tofu is going to be as good or better than what I’d produce in my kitchen.

Partly that’s because the coagulants most often used to make tofu are somewhat less accessible – gypsum, for example, or magnesium and calcium chloride – than lemon juice. I’ve read that you can use an acidic compound such as vinegar or lemon juice to curdle the soymilk, but I’ve also read it will affect the flavor of the finished product and since I can buy very good, inexpensive tofu, that’s what I do.

There are two basic types of tofu you can buy: silken and “regular.” The latter is sometimes described as “cotton” tofu; the main difference is that more water has been removed from regular tofu, and as a result, it has a spongier texture than the custard-like silken product. Complicating matters is that you can also buy firm, medium-firm and extra-firm silken tofu, which are correspondingly more dense, but do not have the “dry” texture of regular tofu. In local groceries, you most often see silken tofu in small rectangular cartons, whereas regular tofu is sold packed in water.

If you venture to an Asian market such as Hong Kong Market in Gretna, or Golden City Asian Market on North Arnault, in Metairie, you’ll find multiple other forms of tofu, including versions that have been pressed to a much firmer texture, or dried, or fried into something that feels like a puffball. Tofu can also be made into a thin membrane-like skin and stuffed, and is preserved or pickled in dozens of preparations.

I most often buy the cartons of silken tofu, because I prefer that texture. The higher moisture content does, however, make it a little more problematic to fry, since it tends to sputter dramatically. Still, there’s something beautiful about a piece of tofu with a crisp exterior and soft, creamy interior. Then again, the dish that made me a tofu convert is made with soft silken tofu that is simply braised in a spicy meat sauce. There’s no frying involved – at least not of the tofu – and it’s one of the great dishes in world cuisine. I’m talking about Ma Po tofu (sometimes “Mapo”) and it’s a Sichuanese dish that for some years couldn’t be made properly in this country without breaking the law. That’s because an essential ingredient – Sichuan peppercorn – was banned from import due to the fear that an Asian citrus-blight would come with it. You can now find Sichuan peppercorns in some chain groceries, and in any Asian market.

Here is a link to a recipe for the dish, though I would substitute pork for the beef and might disregard the whole “fry Sichuan peppercorns in oil then discard the peppercorns” step were I you.

Perhaps the most marvelous thing about tofu, from my perspective, is that my now-picky 5 year-old daughter will still request a bowl of uncooked tofu as a snack. This is remarkable because other than tofu, the things she commonly asks for are a spoon of Nutella, cookies, candy and ice cream. I won’t say all the kids are as fond of tofu as Georgia, but I can generally at least get them to try it if I don’t make the sauce too spicy.

If you have not tried tofu because the thought of “soybean cheese” makes you queasy, I’d recommend you give it a shot. If you do, let me know what you think. 



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