Adventures in Tofu
From bean to bean curd
STORY AND PHOTOS BY BETH MAXEY
My husband and I were driving down Madison Avenue one Sunday afternoon when I glanced over at Café Flora. “Do you think we’d be married if I were a vegetarian?” I asked, jokingly.
“No.” he said. His, response was instant, shocking. I caught my breath while he flicked on the blinker and made his left turn. His eyes didn’t leave the road.
You, like me, might not think that this same man would be a tofu enthusiast. But great marriages, like great food, have an ability to shock, surprise and delight. Not too many weeks later I found him in our kitchen, his don’t-talk-to-me-I’m-cooking-apron on, stirring a creamy white liquid on the stove.
“Whatcha making,” I asked, peering over his shoulder.
“I’m just making some soy milk,” he said, before giving me the ‘it’s-my-kitchen-now’ look. “Then I’m going to make some tofu to go with dinner.” I checked my watch as I backed away. It was already 6pm. I was doubtful.
I shouldn’t have been. I now know tofu is easy to make, delicious when fresh, and much more varied than the spongy white blocks available at the supermarket. It’s not just a meat substitute, but a category of many Asian cuisines valued for its texture and mouth feel.
When I sat down, he placed a dish of Sichuanese Flower Blossom Tofu in front of me: toasted peanuts, sesame-chili oil dressing, and pickled cabbage served over—be still my heart—his successful, homemade, still-warm, custard-soft tofu. I took a bite: rich, sweet in the way of the freshest vegetables, toasty, and smooth. A concession was in order.
“I guess there are a lot of things you can do with tofu,” I said, eyeing his bowl for extra bites.
“I think what you mean,” he said, “is that there are a lot of things you can’t do without tofu.”
Unfortunately, I cannot begin to list them all—because I still haven’t tasted most of them. Tofu—or bean curd—is a key component of most Southeast and East Asian countries’ cuisines, a staple for a fifth or more of the world’s population. Over the next few months we made, bought, and tasted as many types of tofu as possible. We started with fresh soy milk, sometimes homemade, other times from the made-fresh-daily local tofu producers we found around Seattle. It was rich, subtly sweet and better than any Soy Dream. My husband made Flower Blossom Tofu frequently for breakfast, and we began to serve tofu pudding with ginger syrup for dessert. I came to love the firm toothsome texture of pressed bean curd, thinly sliced, and served with chili oil and discovered thin crepe-like tofu skins in Inari, my favorite type of sushi. The more we looked around, the more kinds of tofu we found: frozen sponge-like tofu in hot pots, fermented stinky tofu, served fried in cubes. The list goes on. We are still discovering.
Food scientist Harold McGee describes tofu as an ancient Chinese invention that transformed the difficult to digest but extremely nutritious mature soybean into something more palatable. Historians postulate that the invention traveled to Japan and then throughout Asia, alongside Buddhism, more than a thousand years ago. A highly specialized monastic culture of vegetarian bean-curd based mock-meats still exists, but tofu in its many forms has permeated the larger culture so thoroughly that it is no longer served as a meat substitute, but often alongside of it, in the same dish or on the same table.
“Like Ma-Po tofu,” my husband says.
I try to keep this in mind when I look at the wobbly-white, grocery store pale cubes I have grown up associating with tofu. This substance is ancient, revered, and tasty, I tell myself. In Japan, tofu is still sometimes referred to in the honorific form, o-dofu, somewhat like we in the west might give thanks for our daily bread. And there is something important about the idea of daily: tofu is a fresh product. In Japan, traditionally, if you didn’t make your own tofu, you would buy it fresh every day like you would your baguette in France. And then once you got it home you would change the water it was kept in to keep the tofu sweet and fresh.
Like a French baguette, once you’ve tasted one, there might be little that could stop you from trying to make your own: look at Julia Child. But before that, when all you’ve got is a block of Wonder Bread to inspire you, it can be hard to muster the enthusiasm and imagination to make your endeavor worthwhile.
Let me encourage you: making soy milk and tofu at home is very easy and what you end up with changes what you think of the form. With a blender, a sauce pan, and a sieve, my husband arrived at a fresh warm glass of soy milk in our home kitchen in little under an hour. The flower tofu was ready less than 30 minutes after that. And like warm homemade bread, you really cannot stop eating it.
Soy milk is made by soaking, grinding, heating, and straining soybeans, to, as McGee explains, “extract their protein and oil in the form of a milk.” You then add coagulant to “concentrate [the milk] into cheese-like curds.”
The coagulant—which functions like rennet in the cheese-making process—causes the protein and fat in the soy milk to concentrate and separate from the watery whey. Chinese tofu recipes use calcium sulfate or magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts); the Japanese method uses nigari, a sea water concentrate.
The first time my husband made us tofu, one of the (many) things I could not figure out, was how he had mysteriously caused the soy milk to thicken.
“Calcium sulfate,” he said.
“What is that?” I asked, “Did we have it around the house?”
“Well,” he said in that pregnant way of a child possibly in trouble and also quite pleased with himself, “I looked on the internet and found that two main uses for calcium sulfate were drywall”—I looked around the room and spotted no holes—”and chalk.” My eyes landed on a little yellow box of white Crayola chalk sticks on the counter behind me.
“You didn’t,” I said, pushing my now-tainted tofu away.
He held the box toward me. “Look,” he said, “It says: “Non-Toxic. They expect babies to eat the stuff.”
The tofu was still delicious, and the fact that blackboard chalk is the same basic ingredient that coagulates soy milk did make me think even more about how I understand my food, but the next time we made tofu, I went to Uwajimaya and bought some nigari, which is what I recommend you do.
In addition to making our own tofu, we also like to buy it—fresh. We are lucky to have several fresh tofu producers to choose from. Thanh Son Tofu, on First Hill, is a bustling Vietnamese production shop that sells tofu pudding, fresh (often-still warm) soy milk, and fried tofu, as well as buns, pork fu, and sausages. NW Tofu, on the southeastern edge of the I.D., sells Chinese-style tofu, tofu noodles, and tofu skins from a very basic counter and fridge outside of their production kitchen. Depending what time of day you visit, you can see the beans soaking, the delicate tofu skins drying, or the great press squeezing the whey from their blocks of fresh tofu. Tofu101 in Factoria—the newcomer among them, offers Taiwanese-style tofu, frozen tofu, fresh flavored soy milk in individual portions (green tea, vanilla, soy milk tea) all made from certified non-GMO soybeans.
Beth Maxey is the chef and owner of Feast Suppers. When she is not cooking she is at work on a memoir about discovering food and family in Sri Lanka.
Recipe: Homemade Soymilk and Tofu