Tofu is all about the texture
Each of the three styles of soy bean curd has a purpose
Those large white blocks of tofu can be intimidating. No matter how carefully you prepare them, the dishes never seem as good as they are when you eat out. It’s all a matter of determining which texture you need – firm, soft, or silken – and finding a recipe that suits you.
For vegetarians and vegans, tofu is an important protein. For others – even hearty folks who like their beef – tofu is a healthy alternative to meat. You see it offered instead of beef in casual lunch spots as an add-in to stir-fries. One-half cup of firm tofu is about 95 calories – the same amount of skinless chicken breast is about 110 – but tofu is considerably lower in fat than beef. The white cakes are actually soy bean curd (tofu is the Japanese word for bean curd), which originated in China more than 1,000 years ago; it’s pronounced doufu in Chinese and dubu in Korean.
Tofu has always been popular in Asian restaurants, and every Asian cuisine boasts many tofu-based dishes. In his Chinese restaurant, Rice Valley in Newton, owner Kent Chen has noticed two dishes in particular becoming popular: a deep-fried orange-flavored bean curd, and a lighter steamed bean curd offered with a special soy sauce.
Tofu is made with soy beans, water, and a coagulant. The beans are soaked, crushed, and simmered in water, then the solids are strained and pressed, which creates soy milk. That milk is heated and combined with a natural coagulant, which makes the milk clot and separate like curds and whey. Curds are set in molds and packed in containers with water. Once you open tofu, use it within a few days, changing the water daily.
Each of the three kinds of tofu has a purpose. Firm is for stir fries (it holds its shape in hot oil), soft is for soups and stews (you can cut it up easily), and silken, also for soups and stews, can be eaten without further cooking. Within each of these designations you can find extra firm to almost custard-like. For most recipes, drain or press tofu before cooking to release excess liquid. A quick method is to microwave it for 2 minutes, then drain the liquid on the plate.
One dish that uses firm tofu is a Japanese specialty in which the block is crumbled and mixed with carrot matchsticks, mushrooms, and beaten eggs. Rice Valley’s silken tofu can be made at home if you rig up a steamer. Pour hot chicken stock and soy sauce around the cubes, then top with scallions and a spoonful of hot oil. The tofu absorbs these and turns very flavorful.
When my family lived in Japan some years ago, every neighborhood had a small tofu shop, mostly multigenerational mom-and-pop operations. The smell of cooking soy beans wafted into the street. Fresh and fried tofu cakes were sold at a window, along with tofu mash or lees, a nutritious byproduct of the beans. Japanese housewives simmer this with vegetables or mold it into croquettes. The women could also buy fresh tofu from a bicycle vendor (usually an old man), who tooted a horn to alert residents. In recent years, a mini truck blasts a horn. Most consumers buy high quality tofu in supermarkets.
As you approach the Chang Shing Tofu factory in Cambridge, you get a whiff of that same bean-y smell. Instead of a tiny window, you walk through the loading dock to buy tofu. This operation supplies many area markets and restaurants. Local farmers pick up the mash to feed their lucky pigs; someone can pack up a bag for you.
If you have a hankering for tofu, you needn’t always have fresh on hand. There’s a shelf-stable brand from Mori-nu. Or freeze a block of firm tofu, defrost it in the refrigerator, and squeeze out the water like a sponge. Slice and toss in hot oil with vegetables and a splash of soy, hoisin, or oyster sauce.
Tofu is your canvas. Add seasonings and see what you get.
To see 4 great tofu recipes go to Debra’s Recipe Cards
Though some tofu manufacturers are not based in this country, all brands are made in plants here.
Chang Shing Tofu Firm
$1.39 for 18 ounces (2 pieces)
The favorite. Made in Cambridge. Comes in regular and large containers. Water clear, taste pure, no bean-y traces. Texture firm to the touch, soft on the tongue. Nice brown crust when fried.
House Organic Tofu Firm
$1.99 for 14 ounces
Creamy white Japanese brand; smooth, appetizing appearance. Firm but not hard; browns when fried and has a clean taste.
Mori-nu Organic Silken Firm
$1.99 for 12.3 ounces
Japanese shelf-stable brand. Called “silken tofu’’ but comes in a variety of textures. When fried, nice crust, but the center breaks apart. Sweet taste, slightly bean-y flavor. Steam or use in soups.
Nasoya Firm Tofu
$1.69 for 14 ounces
Brick-like with a slight bean-y taste. Smooth when cut; forms a good crust when fried.
Pulmuone All Natural Firm
$1.69 for 18 ounces
Favorite Korean brand. Frying produces a light and smooth crust with a fine texture and subtle flavor. Available at Korean grocers or H Mart in Burlington.
Soy Boy Firm
$2.19 for 16 ounces
Yellowish cast to water; rough surface on block. Very firm to the touch, tasteless, and heavy. The least Asian bean curd-like texture. When fried, it’s slightly bitter.
21st Century Tofu
$1.19 for 16 ounces
Made in Jamaica Plain. Smooth texture, taste is a bit chalky. When fried, it’s crispy on the outside, soft inside, and doesn’t crumble. Available at A. Russo and Sons in Watertown or the Harvest Co-op Market in Jamaica Plain.
365 Organic Firm
$1.79 for 14 ounces
Pocked rough surface, firm to the touch, crumbly. Distinctive, buttery taste. When fried, surprisingly mellow.
Vermont Soy Firm Style
$1.98 for 14 ounces
Least favorite. Off-putting dense, crumbly, chalky texture. Texture improves after cooking.