The Chinese have a saying. When handling tofu, it must be ‘never lukewarm’. Tofu has to be served chilled or steaming hot. Either way no in between. Because 90% of tofu is water, at lukewarm temperatures all the flavor of tofu is lost.
As a devout and enthusiastic carnivore, I think tofu gets a bad rap amongst many diners. This is not food reserved for hippies, vegetarians, and those with weak teeth. I also think because so many do not know how to utilize tofu’s unique characteristics and abilities it is going through a bit of an identity crisis here in the states. I cringe at abominations like tofurkey, which dishonor both turkey and tofu. We all love you tofu. And if we don’t, we should be able to learn how to appreciate you for who you are. There’s no need to pretend to be something you aren’t. You’ve been rocking your game in Asia for hundreds if not thousands of years. There’s no need to be insecure because of the disapproval of some.
Alone, tofu is deceptively complex and wonderfully refreshing. The variety of textures, from silken, to semi-firm, to firm, all play to different strengths, making tofu an incredibly versatile ingredient with almost any cooking method. Depending on the quality of the soy beans and the water you can truly bring out and appreciate the subtle sweetness of the beans in plain tofu. Most notable, however, is tofu’s remarkable ability to absorb the flavors of its surroundings and blend seamlessly into a dish. Tofu is the world’s greatest flavor sponge.
Personally some of my favorite preparations of tofu are in Thai, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Filipino cuisine. In Thai you have fried tofu with sweet and spicy chili sauce. The tofu is served piping hot with a crispy shell. The secret to enjoying the dish and not burning your tongue off is to cut the tofu open with your fork (I continue to contend that Southeast Asian cooking is meant to be eaten with a spoon and fork) and allow the steam to escape first. This serves to ensure the freshness of the dish. Return if not served with steaming insides. The heat also allows it to absorb flavor better as you spoon the sweet and spicy chili sauce over the runny creamy center and top with crunchy roasted chopped peanuts. In Chinese it must be mapo tofu. I love the balance of heat and creaminess that the tofu provides, complementing the pork, peppers, and onions. Spooned over rice and eaten right away it is filling and totally worth that burn. Korean soondubu is a popular meal for my friends and I in winter. There are plenty of wonderful authentic Korean restaurants
near where we live that serve this dish. Soondubu is a supremely spicy tofu soup that can be served with shellfish, pork, beef, or just plain. It is prepared and served in these small clay pots that cook over a hot intense fire. The soup is often served still boiling when it gets to your table. You crack a raw egg into the soup and allow the residual heat to softly poach the egg and stir in a bowl of white rice. Filling and warming on a cold winter night. In these dishes we highlight two of tofu’s natural skills. The first is its ability to absorb the spices and flavorings of the sauce and the second is how it can simultaneously project the fiery heat of the Szechuan peppers and spicy Korean gochujang (fermented chili paste) and protect us from it as well. In this sense tofu acts much like milk, coating the palate as a shield offering cooling and refreshing relief from the fiery onslaught of intense flavor. A big spoonful of soft tofu is such a welcome reprieve.
In the Philippines we take a completely different approach. Tokwa’t Baboy is a popular pulutan (drinking food) in bars, restaurants, and homes. My father would make it at home for long road trips to help keep him up during the drive and I loved to sneak bites along the way. Super-fried dried tofu is mixed along with boiled softened and chopped up pig ears marinated in a mixture of sugar, soy sauce, vinegar, and onions. Bar food is meant to cut the effects of alcohol and the aggressive aroma and sourness of the white vinegar, the saltiness of the soy sauce, and the sweetness of the sugar combined with the punch of onion certainly does the trick. The tofu is firm like a softened jerky and the pig ear is a wonderful play of contrasting textures. The soft jelly like flesh and the crunchy cartilage are a delight to bite into.
Tofu is also wonderful served chilled in desserts. It is an easy substitute to make creamy no bake cheesecakes. Chilled it is also a wonderful appetizer. In Japan it is served slightly seasoned with soy sauce, sesame oil, green onions, and garlic. Perhaps a splash of dashi broth. In China I happen to love it prepared mixed up with minced century eggs.
As is often the case in my writing, I should direct you to realize that as much as this is a treatise on the wonderful advantages of cooking with tofu in the proper ways, it is primarily a metaphor for how I believe one should live. Yeah, you know what else is almost 90% water? You! So be like the tofu. We are beings capable of incredible levels of complexity and uniqueness. It is remarkable how versatile and adaptable the human spirit is. I do not have to look too far beyond my own horizon to see examples of people absorbing the flavors of their surroundings and shining against it. My parents were first-generation immigrants from the Philippines. My father started here as a gas station attendant. They have both had highly successful careers and are now business owners working for themselves. Everywhere I travel I am amazed to see how communities have formed and bonded. The most effective are those that are able to balance retaining their own cultural identity and heritage while also blending in with others. It saddens me when I see people succumb to their surroundings. When they let the pressures of the outside world bleed them dry of all their original, unique flavor. We try so hard to inspire and encourage our youth to remember who they are, and that they have so much more to contribute to their environment than they think. Much like tofu, given the right ingredients and the mindset to ‘enhance, not hide’ the flavors of us, there remains yet so many new and exciting dishes to be made. Tofu is truly one of the greatest canvases of cuisine and one should strive to live as it is meant to be prepared. Never settle for in-between. As Socrates said, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. I will add to that, ‘a lukewarm life has no flavor’. We take the cold (bad) with the hot (good) to create the dips and valleys of our lives that make it exciting and worth living. We may fear the unexpected and unpredictable rise and fall, but then we live a level and uninteresting existence. We allow our time on earth to be safe and bland. As much as I have pained, I know I would take every ounce of it if it means that there would be a time I would be equally happy. As much as I fear loss, I love happiness and love too much to not let myself go off the deep end of one even if it means I could fall into the other.
The point of the matter is tofu is incredibly versatile as long as you remember to be aggressive and bold. Never settle for room temperature. Bring tofu to the edges of possibility and this deceptively humble and simple ingredient will shine. As the Chinese say, ‘never lukewarm’.