Giving Tofu the New Look It Deserves
Evan Sung for The New York Times
By MARK BITTMAN
July 7, 2014
It’s not likely that tofu will become anyone’s favorite food; this we know. Those who grew up in households where it was well prepared may relish it, but for the rest of us it’s a bit of a requisite, something we think we “should” eat in place of chicken or eggs whenever we can stomach it.
However. With meat substitutes and even alternative animal protein like bugs surging in popularity — or at least media attention — it’s time to re-evaluate and finally embrace the original plant-based mock meat. (There are others, of course: seitan, or wheat gluten, which in the current anti-gluten climate is difficult to talk about, and tempeh, a fermented soy and grain product that I don’t cook with much. That could change.)
I like tofu. I cook it a couple of times a week, which is more often than I cook chicken. It’s as natural a product as mozzarella, arguably simpler (you don’t need a cow, for one thing) and similarly produced: In both cases, you take milk and you add something that will clump it up. Period. In one case the milk is dairy, and in the other it’s soy.
The differences between the two are obvious, and we could argue about whether good fresh mozzarella offers a better eating experience than good fresh tofu (neither has much flavor without some condiments), but what’s inarguable is that tofu is our most versatile form of nonanimal concentrated protein, as well as the least processed and the most traditional. Andrea Nguyen, in her valuable “Asian Tofu,” says tofu has been made for about 2,000 years and has been popular since the 10th century.
There are, of course, hyperprocessed or preflavored forms of tofu, or both, that range from Tofu Pups to pressed tofu (usually flavored with five-spice powder or something like it, and incredibly easy to cook well), to fermented tofu, which is both ancient and delicious, if somewhat stinkily off-putting to some.
I’m not talking about any of that. And I’m not talking about making your own tofu, although that’s easy enough. I’m talking buying bricks of plain old tofu, the kind you cut into cubes or, if you’re fancy, diamonds; the kind that we dutifully stir-fried with broccoli and soy sauce back in the ’70s. I’m talking about using tofu in ways that really play up its strengths and make it if not the best choice for a dish then a substitute that doesn’t feel like a compromise but simply another way of doing things.
All of the recipes here make a point, none better than Tofu “Chorizo.” It starts with taking tofu and crumbling it finely, as if it were ground or coarsely chopped. You can do that in 20 seconds, with no utensil other than your hands. Then you then cook it until the water is driven out, as you would ground beef or chicken, to get a result that’s very similar to ground meat. What you wind up with are little crispy bits of fat and protein that have some chew and the flavor of whatever you cooked with them.
I don’t want this to be a competition — I eat meat — but put this stuff in tacos and no one will know the difference. You’ll have saved money and cooked a product with a lighter carbon footprint, no animal welfare issues and fewer health threats than any meat. That kind of proselytizing aside, try the dish and see whether you think it’s any good.
I love silken tofu in soups and soupy stir-fries because it puffs and firms up a bit, becoming quite juicy and, if the other ingredients are right, quite delicious. But silken tofu has other properties very akin to cream. The Chocolate Tofu Pudding I ran in these pages five years ago is among the most popular and surprising recipes I’ve ever developed. A more recent development, Chocolate Avocado Mousse, is in my latest book, “The VB6 Cookbook” and, I think, equally successful.
But the best use for silken tofu is what you might call vegannaise, an egg-free mayo that takes five minutes. (I know, the recipe says 10, but that doesn’t allow for multitasking.) It’s a recipe that never fails and can be varied, say, by adding basil, in all the ways you’d vary real mayonnaise. (Eggs are nicely mimicked, too, when you scramble firm tofu with vegetables or grains. I wouldn’t say no one could tell the difference, but I will say this kind of scramble is easy and satisfying.)
A good meat substitute should at least occasionally offer some real chew, and one of the common complaints about tofu is that to make it chewy you have to process it somehow. (Of course, chicken breasts aren’t very pleasant in their raw state either.) Hence, we have the pressed tofu mentioned above, the new preflavored and even precooked products like grilled tofu or the long explanations and techniques for pressing and weighting tofu.
None of that is necessary. If you bake tofu, you can dry it out and firm it up as much as you like. I’ve developed a tofu jerky recipe that’s nearly as tough as beef jerky. When it becomes firm, you can turn it into a fine escabeche or sauce it in 100 different ways. I offer Manchurian-style here, but you can do this with Provençal, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, Sichuan or many other seasonings; stir-fry it like chicken.
This is not a dish that’s trying to fool people — it’s tofu, all right — but it is intended to persuade them, and you, that in an era when many cooks are looking to cut back on meat, this is an ingredient worth taking seriously. Finally.