Mapo tofu (Photo: Getty Images)

In defence of tofu, the maligned culinary chameleon

Jean Teng has had a lifetime of people telling her they despise tofu, when really they just don’t know what to do with it – or it’s been cooked for them by someone similarly clueless. 

While everyone else was breaking their back kneading for crusty sourdough during lockdown, all I wanted to do was make tofu. I’d daydream about its silky-smooth texture, about scooping up a section with an elegant swipe of my silver spoon after being drowned with fried garlic, soy sauce and slices of spring onion. I’d put chunks in a hot fish soup and slurp it up with flavourful broth. I’d diligently wait for it to finish steaming, then shake the dish side to side to see it wobble. Jiggle, jiggle.

During all this, my thoughts were invaded by how much some people seemed to truly hate the stuff. A lifetime of people telling me they despised tofu and would never willingly put it into their mouths – when in reality they’d only tried it the one time in a bad vege burger – made me feel some type of way. Did they know it could be sweet and nutty? Take on their favourite flavours? Be the star of a great dessert? The fact that tofu is so misunderstood strikes me as a true injustice, so here I am, taking the stand for this tasty protein and its many virtues. 

When it’s prepared properly, everyone should be able to enjoy tofu. This foodstuff – its history dating back 2,000 years to the Chinese Han dynasty – deserves more respect than being relegated to the sole domain of vegans and vegetarians, or as a hippy-dippy product feared by big-bad carnivores. I, a daily meat eater, happily consume tofu on a regular basis, even, shock horror, ordering it when dining out. Why not? It soaks up spices like a sponge, is a goddamn chameleon, and, if you’re not vegetarian, actually pairs extremely well with meat and seafood.

I don’t want to treat tofu like some weird, niche food product. It’s really, really not. Lots of people like and eat tofu, in a variety of different cuisines, but its maligned status seems to persist in the west: many articles, like this Spinoff Beyond Burger review, often pit the popularity of fake meat against “horrible” tofu, as if the race for imitation beef is propelled by vegetarians agonising over having to eat the ghastly protein for the rest of their life. Like, for real, the word horrible was used. Here’s the full quote:

In Han Dynasty China they came up with tofu, which was a good effort but unfortunately it is horrible, not only because it isn’t remotely like meat but also because when you see it for a moment you think it might be something heavenly like feta or halloumi but it is not, it’s horrible tofu.”

Boo!

Agedashi tofu (Photo: Getty Images)

It’s my guess that a lot of tofu hate stems from people just not knowing what to do with it, ordering it as a last-resort option at a place that didn’t really want to cook it either, or by expecting it to taste like meat. To its huge detriment, it’s thought of and treated as a meat substitute in western cooking, rather than as a standalone ingredient. This mindset has resulted in extremely sad inventions like tofurkey or tofu bacon, often only good for a funny punchline in an American sitcom. If you’re a meat eater, then, sure, a meat burger is going to taste better than a tofu burger. Tofu doesn’t taste like meat, nor should it have to. Do you expect cheese to taste like meat?

Instead of coming up with a meat dish then substituting tofu in it, many other cuisines build dishes with tofu in mind, because we want it to taste good, not masochistically punish ourselves. If you order a tofu dish at an Asian restaurant, it’s likely there will be meat in it somewhere – veganism is rarely the end goal – so you’ve gotta be a bit careful about that. When cooking with it, the same rule applies; don’t expect it to work the same way as meat does.

There are lots of varieties, and the trick is knowing what will work where. My favourite is silken, creamy like custard, often used in dishes like agedashi, working beautifully with an umami-packed dashi broth and lightly fried with potato starch, or, the Sichuan favourite mapo tofu, flavoured with chilli and fermented bean paste. Then there’s a spectrum of “firm” types: medium-firm, firm, extra-firm. I usually alternate between silken and firm; silken goes great in soup, too, and for experimenting with (tofu cream, or mayo, for example) while firm is good for your stir-fry type meals. Crispy salt and pepper tofu is a really easy dish to start with – all you need is to coat it in a corn starch, pepper and salt mix and fry it with garlic, chilli and spring onion. 

Tofu stars in the Korean dish soondubu jiggae (Photo: Getty Images)

You can get tofu at New World or Countdown, but I always buy it from Asian supermarkets. There is a working theory put forth by an expert in America that the west developed firm and extra-firm substitutes (which are less common in Chinese cuisine) as a way to stand-in as meat, to normalise a vegetarian diet through a “swap mentality”. I would say that theory holds up: mainstream supermarkets in New Zealand tend to only stock firm or regular varieties, without a single mention of “soft” or “silken”. Even the firm tofu at Asian supermarkets will still cook soft and end up antithetical to meat. If being New Zealand-made is important to you, Tonzu and Bean Supreme are both produced here. Some recipes will ask you to “press” your firm tofu to get all the moisture out, but you can usually get away with simply draining the liquid and patting dry. 

There are lots of dishes with tofu I recommend ordering if eating out. Korean soft tofu stew, soondubu jiggae, is hot-spicy heaven, usually seafood-based and made with a generous amount of gochugaru (chilli flakes). At some yum cha places, they serve taufu fa (or douhua) in giant silver tubs, a kind of soft tofu pudding that’s swimming in a sea of sweet ginger syrup. Found at Cantonese restaurants, yong tau foo is stuffed with vegetables or fish balls or minced meat, and comes in a bowl of clear, piping-hot soup. Claypot tofu is usually braised and served with the kind of glorious brown gloop that makes me happy. Then, there’s the favourite: egg tofu, masquerading in Malaysian restaurants under the menu name “homemade tofu”, deep-fried with delightful yellowy insides – a version that, for me, can never be topped. 

That’s my white whale of a tofu dish, and I make something pretty similar at home. Making your own tofu is ridiculously simple, and freshly made tofu will always taste better; in Asian countries, you can buy blocks from roadside vendors.

EGG TOFU 

Makes enough for a 20cm square container – I use a Pyrex

  • 5 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 500ml unsweetened soy milk, from the Asian supermarket
  • ¾ teaspoon salt

Beat eggs, soy milk and salt thoroughly until well-mixed. Push the mixture through a regular sieve (not cheese cloth, since this tofu uses egg).

Line your container with cling wrap and pour the mixture in.

Steam over low heat for about 20-25 minutes until cooked (a skewer inserted into the centre should come out clean when done).

Let it cool completely before cutting into squares.

To cook it, simply coat it in cornflour and deep-fry until crispy, then serve with sweet chilli sauce, or lightly pan-fry and add minced meat, mushrooms, oyster sauce and soy sauce. Please note in traditional Malaysian style, we typically serve three or four dishes (with rice) for a meal, so this egg tofu might be one in the mix – if you want to make it a complete meal by itself, just cook it with more veg and/or meat.



The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.