I’d be surprised if you were to say you never encountered tofu in your life. You’ve seen it in your grocer’s produce section, and on almost any menu in any Asian restaurant. To the eye it can look like a mound of yogurt, or a block of soft white cheese. To the taste buds it seems to be flavorless, but it’s had such a deep history in Asian cuisine that it’s worth exploring.
Tofu is a bean curd, usually made of soybeans. However, it can also be made out of other items such as almonds, eggs, sesame seeds, peanuts, or other beans. Tofu comes in a variety of textures, from a thick cream to a firm block of mass. It’s bland, almost flavorless taste makes it an ideal “bulk” that can be utilized for many sweet and savory dishes, depending on how you season it.
The history surrounding tofu dates back over 2000 years. While it is known that the curd was invented in ancient China, not much more than theories can describe its origin.
One of these theories dates back to the early Han Dynasty (164 BCE). The claim was that Lord Liu An of Huai-nan had invented tofu. However, this theory has lost much favor with the Chinese, as new evidence suggests the development occurred before Liu An.
Scholars and historians believe that it’s more likely that tofu came about in the 2nd Century BCE as a commonly produced and consumed food item. While the varieties produced back then would be different than what we see now, the production technique is quite similar.
Over the centuries, tofu spread all over the Orient due to the vegetarian lifestyle practiced by Buddhists. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the West was introduced to tofu, mainly when Spanish and British explorers/tradesmen arrived in the Philippines and Japan. The United States didn’t really see tofu until the late 1800s, and never caught on to trying it until the 1970s.
Producing and Purchasing Tofu
The technique for producing tofu is a long-held tradition, but it’s strikingly similar to how cheese and butter are made. Soy milk is boiled and mixed with coagulants, then pressed into curds. The coagulants could be salt-based, acid-based, enzyme-based, or a combination. It all depends on the producer and what kind of final flavor he/she wants to achieve. The resulting texture is made by how much water is drained from these curds.
Now not all tofu is the same, and I’m not just talking about texture. Many quality producers will make their own soy milk, as opposed to buying it. As mentioned, the choice and mixture of coagulants will determine the final flavor of the product.
When purchasing tofu, I’d suggest checking out a local Asian market or International market over your typical grocery store. It’s more than likely you’ll find fresh tofu there, while some major grocers might freeze their tofu in shipping. Never freeze tofu, as it will change the texture due to the frozen water in the package. Better to buy it fresh when you want it.
Now if you’re wondering about a particular brand, or how much you should spend, that really comes down to a trial and error viewpoint. I really honestly do not know what brands are “better”, but I’ll usually stick to organic in this instance.
Cooking with Tofu
Tofu is highly regarded not only in Asian cuisine, but by vegetarians. It’s high in calcium and protein, often used as a substitute for meat. Now many who have tried tofu in the past have walked away disappointed, but I usually believe that if you didn’t like a food the first time, then it might not have been prepared in a favorable way.
Tofu is often used as a substitute for eggs. You can use firm tofu seasoned with garlic and turmeric to make a scrambled egg substitute. Silken tofu is used as a thickening agent for smoothies, and even to make dips, quiches, mousses, and cheesecake-like desserts.
One popular place to find tofu is in Miso Soup, which one day I’ll make and post a recipe for. Beyond that, the most popular way of preparing firm tofu is to simply season or marinade it, then fry or grill it. Try it yourself. Just drain, then cut up some firm or extra firm tofu, soak it overnight in a marinade, then fry or grill it. Delicious.
My most favorite way of cooking with tofu is actually one of the earliest recipes I ever made when I was living on my own. A lot of credit goes to Ani on allrecipes.com, as it originally was her recipe, which I took a few liberties with.
The dish is a delicious stir-fry of tofu mixed with a variety of vegetables, topped with a tangy peanut sauce, then garnished with chopped peanuts. Try making this for yourself and I guarantee you’ll look at tofu in a new light.
Tofu Stir-Fry with Peanut Sauce
For the peanut sauce
- 1/2 cup of peanut butter
- 1 tsp of granulated garlic
- 2 tbsp of soy sauce
- 1 tsp of brown sugar
- 1 tbsp of lime juice
- 1/4 tsp of crushed red pepper
- 1/2 cup of water
For the stir-fry
- 1 package firm or extra firm tofu
- 1/2 cup of canola or vegetable oil
- 16 oz of stir-fry vegetables
- 1 tsp of ginger
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 cup of flour
- 2 eggs
- 1/4 cup of chopped peanuts
- Place all the sauce ingredients except the water into a blender or food processor.
- Blend well, then slowly add the water until you have reached your desired thinness.
- Set the sauce aside.
- Drain your tofu, then cut into cubes.
- Heat up 2 tbsp of the oil in a wok or frying pan.
- Place the vegetables in and cook until slightly tender.
- Season the vegetables with salt, pepper, and the ginger.
- Cook for another 2 minutes, then set aside.
- Set up two shallow bowls or plates. In one mix the flour with some salt and pepper. In the second, beat the two eggs well.
- Heat up more oil in your wok.
- Working in batches, take the tofu cubes and dip them into the egg, then coat them with flour.
- Place your coated tofu into the oil and cook until the outside is a crispy golden brown.
- When you've coated and cooked all the tofu, place the vegetables back into the wok with the tofu.
- Pour the peanut sauce and chopped peanuts in, then gently mix.
- Cook the stir-fry for 5-6 more minutes until all the flavors have blended together.
Slowly add the water to your sauce as you blend it. Your goal is a thick, but pourable consistency similar to ketchup.
When I say "stir-fry vegetables", then I mean at least a combination of broccoli, carrots, and sugar snap peas. You could add in chopped red peppers, mushroom, water chestnuts, and/or baby corn if you wish. In all honesty, I usually take a shortcut with a bag of frozen stir-fry vegetables. If you go this route, make sure you defrost them first.
Be careful when you're mixing/handling the tofu in the cooking process. Be gentle, so you don't break up the pieces.
Outside of vegetable choices, the only other big variation I could fathom would be if you just do not want tofu. If that's the case, then try cut up pieces of chicken. Just make sure you cook them all the way.
If you wish to avoid the eggs and go totally vegan, then try using some oil to coat the tofu before covering with flour.
Serve this stir-fry with rice or noodles. If you wish for a more colorful plating, then do not mix in the vegetables with the cooked tofu and sauce, but put it all together in the plating.