Two meals made me think that tofu — or bean curd — was more than just bland protein. The first was in Umu, a Japanese restaurant in London. I had never had a meal where texture was so important – the steamed crab custard, like a savory creme brulee, the melty wagyu beef – but the dish I still crave is the simple bowl of dashi in which floated dollops of silken tofu. I say “spoonfuls” but it’s hard to describe the structure of the tofu I had that day. It was so sweet it was almost shapeless, sweeter than that old fashioned English pudding, junket. It shook, it melted when it touched my tongue, it was really ‘silky’. The tofu at Umu is made in the kitchen every day; I haven’t had one since that matched.
The second dish, in a Chinese restaurant, was mapo tofu. It is the opposite of silken tofu in dashi. Mapo tofu’s tofu is firm and fried with pieces of ground beef or pork, fermented black beans, and Sichuan chili bean paste. It’s so hot it burns your mouth; the meat nuggets are pure umami and the whole dish fills your mouth. Tofu both carries the flavors that surround it and overpowers them. The tofu pieces are a relief.
Tofu is made from soybeans, but boiled soybeans don’t taste so good and don’t become tender either. The Chinese and Japanese have found ways to make them palatable and digestible. They started by soaking the beans, grinding them, then straining and coagulating the resulting “milk” into curds. This is then pressed to remove most of the “whey”. The results differ wildly in texture; you’ll see ‘extra firm’, ‘very firm’ and ‘firm’ tofu all the way to ‘silky’ tofu. Don’t expect to experience anything thinly tuned and quivering like I experienced in Umu, though.
The confusing thing about tofu is that the brands differ. Some, although labeled as firm, are not. I use the Tofoo brand and buy their ‘extra firm’. He just needs to be “hurried”, not “hurried”. I’ve covered how to press and how to press tofu in the recipes below, which means you know how to handle tofu, whatever you end up buying.
There are different ways to process tofu. Pieces of it can go straight into a sauce or soup without any frying, or they can be sautéed or roasted. I don’t roast tofu because I can’t bother to flip it every now and then so it has a nice color all over. I find it more convenient to fry chunks of tofu and usually coat them in seasoned cornmeal. This produces nice crispy edges – one of the pleasures of tofu – but you need to get rid of the excess cornmeal and fry it in very hot oil or the pieces will get gooey.
The thing I noticed – and food writer Melissa Clark wrote about it in The New York Times a while ago – did stir-fry, where you keep the ingredients in your wok moving, keep the tofu from getting crispy and colorful. You should leave it alone initially, not constantly throw it away. Once the tofu is browned, you can add other ingredients to your wok or add the crispy tofu to a partially prepared dish.
I’m not vegan or vegetarian, so why use tofu? While we’re being asked to stop eating so much meat, tofu – a protein – is one way to do that. It also stretches a dish, allowing you to replace half the expensive king prawns in a dish, for example, with tofu. But the truth is that I like it. I love how crispy it is and how it sucks them in and dulls the strong flavors. Tofu can, when cooked with the hottest peppers, roll around your mouth alternately emitting heat and its soothing antidote. This makes it unique.
The best tofu recipes to try in 2022
Thai-style red curry with tofu and spring vegetables
Once you’ve made the curry base, it’s really quick. There’s nothing wrong with using a purchased Thai curry paste, but they always need a little help, so I add some fresh spices. You can just add tofu cubes to this – you don’t need to fry them – but I prefer them fried.