Monday, January 11, 2016

The Wonderful Textured World of Tofu...

Tofu!! Boring, flavourless, bland...? Not in my family's book! High-protein, high-fibre and heart-healthy soybeans, with its many nutritious benefits are remarkably versatile, adapting well to other ingredients and flavours-- so it's up to you to make the culinary best of its many formats and to jolt its potential with deliciousness! With so many people venturing into permanent vegetarian diets and going meat-free occasionally, soy products are a smart and nutritious way to go! Soybeans, first make soy milk after being boiled, mashed and sieved (this process also produce bean curd sheets). Further curdling the fresh hot milk using a coagulant and draining to create curds, it is then pressed together to form tofu (bean curd)- silken, soft, medium and firm textures are determined by how much liquid is extracted from the curds. Other bean curd by-products include tempeh, textured vegetable protein, and processed to make oil, flour, noodles, miso, fermented "cheese", bean paste and a variety of sauces.

It is believed that the soybean (soya bean) originated in temperate and tropical Africa and Asia. An important part of Asian diet for centuries, soybean did not appear in North America until the nineteenth. Today, the range of soy products available on Western shelves range from cheese, snacks, pasta, chocolate, ice cream and desserts. I gravitate towards cooking bean curd in a vast array of Asian dishes stemming from childhood nostalgia and exploring new ones-- from Chinese, Korean to Japanese; I am partial to working with silken and soft tofu, but also love experimenting with its many formats and textures. To me, tofu and all its wonderful bean curd splendour is comfort food at its best. 

Here is a collection from my kitchen to yours featuring my family favourites from soups, appetizers to mains! I hope this inspires you to give a recipe or two a try or add to your bean curd repertoire... its versatility is truly limited only by your imagination.

Soy Foods

Photo Credits: Healthy Soy (cookbook) by Brigid Treloar

Hot and sour soup has always been one of my all-time favourite comfort soups- a tasty harmony created from hot and sour notes. My father and his brother owned a Canadian Chinese take-out restaurant when I was in my teens and my uncle made the best version of this soup ever! Every time, I made it over the years for friends, family and colleagues, I have never been short of rave reviews. The delicious secret... toban djan- a specialized Szechuan sauce blending chilis and fermented beans. Love the bouncy soft tofu cubes.

Hot and Sour Soup-- add udon noodles to make it a meal.

Koreans produce the best comfort hearty stews to warm your soul and belly in the chilliest of weathers-- especially with silken tofu. A nutritious traditional Korean stew powerhouse with bean curd and bean paste, in a Spicy broth with meat (Sundubu-Jjigae) and a vegetarian version (Tobu Toenjang Chigae).

Spicy Sundubu-Jjigae and a vegetarian version Tobu Toenjang Chigae

Miso is made from fermented soybeans. Double your dose on healthy soy with cubes of silken tofu in Japan's comfort favourite-- miso soup. Here's my Fool-Proof Basic Miso Soup.

Generally, the darker the colour, the saltier the taste, the lighter the colour, the sweeter the taste.

Photo Credits: Recipes of Japanese Cooking by Yuko Fujita

I really love the simplicity of this comfort tofu dish. Whole soft tofu cubes steamed in a heat-proof dish (either over stove) or in rice-cooker while cooking rice (needs about 10 minutes on high); carefully drain hot water emitted, sprinkle with chopped green onion, ladle hot oil and soy sauce. I tried the dish recently with Pearl River Bridge Seasoned Soy Sauce for Seafood and it was a perfect compliment-- slightly sweet umami flavour boosted the tasteless tofu and accentuated the aromatic green onions cooked in the hot oil. Super simple side to eat along steamed rice!

Ask a Chinese person what their favourite comfort food is, and I bet you this dish with be enumerated. Mapo Tofu is a Szechuan favourite and a super easy and tasty dish to cook up where tofu and pork are intensely mixed with hot bean paste and Szechuan chilies. The Chinese translation is literally "pockmarked old woman's or grandmother's bean curd." Read on further how the name of this dish came to be.

Mapo Tofu

Simmered Beef and Tofu-- this satisfying Japanese-inspired recipe features a richly flavoured beef and onion topping nestled in soft tofu with earthy shiitake mushrooms. The delicious light sweet and savoury sauce combining sugar, sake and mirin is a definitive characteristic of home-style Japanese cuisine. Served over hot rice, the beautiful flavours is soaked up and instantly becomes more irresistible and full-filling with each bite.

Simmered Beef and Tofu

My Sis-in-law Yoko's Japanese Fresh Tofu Salad with chopped tomatoes and shredded cucumber in a light vinaigrette dressing. The key is extractung as much water as possible by pressing the soft tofu with something heavy like a wooden chopping board for hours in the fridge. This is a highly refreshing and delicious dish. OISHIII!

Japanese Fresh Tofu Salad

Here, a simple Korean-style side dish using medium-firm tofu-- sliced up, pan-fried both sides and served with one minced garlic and green onion mixed in soy sauce, a little brown sugar and Korean red pepper flakes, garnished with toasted sesame seeds. This is one is always wolfed down by my twins.

Pan-Fried Tofu with Garlic, Onions and Soy

This is my kind of eating... something simple, full on flavour and could be a great main or side dish to accompany any Asian meal! My niece Kathia from Montreal passed me this recipe made with firm tofu topped with duo Japanese mushrooms, which really makes this extraordinary. Another super thing is that firm tofu could nicely replace the meat in your meal as it is high in protein (the highest in tofu types) and the texture is quite hearty and unyielding- think "steak" tofu.

Pan-Fried Tofu with Mushrooms

The Japanese think of everything-- tofu sold in long shelf life aseptic boxes (Aseptic packaging locks out the "bad" (light, air bacteria) and locks in the "good" (nutrients, amino acids, isoflavones, flavour) with no preservatives and need no refrigeration until opened. Morinaga sells both soft and firm tofu in these packs. I found these at my local Asian supermarket. 

Kids don't like tofu; you don't like tofu? A tasty bridge could be egg tofu! Sold in tubes, eggs are combined with soy extract; the texture is smooth and rich with a mild eggy flavour. Pan fry sliced until golden on both sides and drizzle with a little soy sauce! Regular soft tofu sold in this packaging too.

Egg Tofu

I found this rather interesting-- ready-to-eat refrigerated five spice bean curd sold in a block for you to slice. Not as tasty and bold as it sounds (at least this brand), however, I loved the layered textured look of the firm slices. Great as a starter.

Oh, how I love 'em spicy bean curd strips to make salad. The salty, tangy, spicy flavours all combine wonderfully in this simply refreshing textural dish along with some shredded vegetables and cilantro. Serve it as an appetizer or an accompaniment to your Asian meal, it graces the meal perfectly during the summer months.

Spicy Bean Curd Salad

For cold months-- hot pot of course! My most memorable dinners were gathering around the table during cold evenings to feast on a variety of meat, seafood and vegetables in a hot pot which, not only satisfyingly filled your stomach, but warmed your body and soul in and out. Bean curd is a favourite for dipping and cooking with a vast selection from tofu, bean curd sticks, deep-fried tofu puffs, and tofu cakes-- shaped into fish, logs and cubes :)

Hot Potting

Hands-down, Pan-Fried Stuffed Bean Curd Rolls are easily my ultimate favourite dim sum delicacy. They are filled with crunchy vegetables such as bamboo shoots, black mushroom fungus, bean sprouts and carrots, and when pan-fried the tofu skin takes on a crispy aromatic flavour that is savoury with every bite served with its complimentary dip of Worcestershire sauce. Sheets of dried bean curd (yuba) are made from the skin that forms on the surface when soy milk is heated. The skin has no flavour or aroma until they are cooked, and rapidly absorb the flavours of seasonings and other ingredients. They are pliable and great for wrapping, but needs to be cooked before eating.

Pan-Fried Stuffed Bean Curd Rolls

Inari Zushi is not your accustomed sushi. These are thinly sliced deep-fried tofu pouches seasoned with sweet soy, that are traditionally stuffed with sushi rice and other vegetable filling-- perfect for vegetarians. This is a nice alternative to Onigiri Japanese rice balls wrapped with nori. Inari could also be sliced and added to stir-fries and rice dishes.

Inari Zushi

Salmon Tofu Patties made with leftover salmon and crumbled medium-firm tofu. Portable and tasty, my kids love them and is a great segway to having yours try tofu. It blends well and takes on the texture of salmon extending the "feel" of eating meat... secret to some restaurant fish cake recipes perhaps?

Salmon Tofu Patties

You can use tofu as a meatless filling along with other vegetables in dumplings or jiaozi. 

Tofu and Vegetables Dumplings
Makes about 40

3 cups finely chopped nappa cabbage
1 pkg firm tofu, mashed to bits, but not mushy (use a fork)
1 handful Chinese chives, finely chopped
½ cup bamboo shoots, drained finely chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped hydrated shiitake mushrooms
1/2 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 package of dumpling wrappers (found in refrigerated section with fresh noodles and tofu)

1. Mix tofu and vegetables together in a bowl. Add salt and soy sauce; incorporate well. Then add oil and cornstarch. Chill at least 1 hour for flavours to meld.

2. Assemble dumplings right before cooking. Place 1 Tbsp. filling in centre of wrapper. Wet half the wrapper rim with water, then fold the wrapper over so that the dry edge meets the wet one. Press along seam to seal shut. Repeat with other dumplings. Cook immediately or freeze (see tip). Do not refrigerate or they will get moist and stick together and to the plate.

Pan-fry: Heat 2 Tbsp. oil on medium in a large skillet or wok. When oil is ready, carefully add the dumplings and cook on high heat until golden brown, turning dumplings over once. Add 1/2 cup of water and cover. Steam for about 1 min. to ensure filling is cooked, then uncover and continue cooking until most of the liquid is absorbed. 

For step-by-step dumpling wrapping and cooking tips see: Dumplings 101

A lot of people tell me they don't like tofu because it's bland, or they can't get over the texture. I can understand texture especially for the non-Asian palate, but it's anything but bland! With so many culinary delights you can make with tofu and bean curd products, and its high nutritional properties also making it a direct meat substitute, why not give it a try? 

Once you've amassed tofu-eating frivolity, for the true tofu connoisseur you must go for the king-- stinky (smelly) tofu!!! White cubes sit for four to six hours in a fermented brine made of vegetables and possibly shrimp, traditionally the whole brine mixture is left to fester for up to six months in an open earthenware. Tofu cubes are rinsed, and aged (fermented) overnight in a refrigerator before it is ready to be deep-fried into delightful putrid notorious stink bombs.  The strong odour is mainly in the cooking, and it subsides quite a lot once the tofu comes out of the oil. Try making it at home, you ask? No can do-- I will not only be kicked out of my home but out of our neighbourhood! This is an infamous Taiwanese or Hong Kong street food I would wait in line any day for, even hours at our crazy crowded Asian night markets than to ever attempt brining let alone cooking it at home.... Bon Appétit!

Photo Credit: Ten Essential Street Foods in Taipei

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