Two meals made me think that tofu – or bean curd – was more than just a bland protein. The first was in Umu, a Japanese restaurant in London. I’d never eaten a meal where texture was so important – the steamed crab custard, like a savory crème brulee, the melting wagyu beef – but the dish I still dream about is the simple bowl of dashi in which floated spoonfuls of silken tofu. I say ‘spoonfuls’ but it’s difficult to describe the structure of the tofu I had that day. It was so soft it was almost shapeless, softer than that old-fashioned English pudding, junket. It trembled, it melted when it hit my tongue, it truly was ‘silken’. the tofu at Umu is made in the kitchen every day; I haven’t had any since that matched it.
The second dish, in a Chinese restaurant, was mapo tofu. It’s the opposite of the silky tofu in dashi. The tofu in mapo tofu is firm and fried with chunks of minced beef or pork, fermented black beans and Sichuan chilli bean paste. It’s so hot it burns your mouth; the nuggets of meat are pure umami and the whole dish floods your mouth. The tofu both carries the flavors that surround it and subdues them. The chunks of tofu are a relief.
Tofu is made from soy beans, but boiled soy beans don’t taste that good, and they don’t become tender either. The Chinese and the Japanese found ways to make them palatable and digestible. They started by soaking the beans, grinding them, then filtering and coagulating the resulting ‘milk’ into curds. This is then pressed to remove most of the ‘whey’. The results differ hugely in texture; you’ll see ‘extra firm’ tofu, ‘very firm’ and ‘firm’ right through to ‘silken’ tofu. Don’t expect to experience something barely set and quivering, as I experienced in Umu, though.
What’s confusing about tofu is that brands differ. Some, despite being labeled as firm, aren’t that firm. I use the Tofoo brand and buy their ‘extra firm’. It just needs to be ‘squeezed’, not ‘pressed’. I’ve explained how to squeeze and how to press tofu in the recipes below which means you know how to handle tofu, whatever you end up buying.
There are various ways to treat tofu. Chunks of it can go straight into a sauce or soup without any frying, or it can be stir-fried or roasted. I don’t roast tofu because I can’t be bothered to turn it over every so often so that it gets a good color all over. I find it more convenient to fry chunks of tofu and usually coat them in seasoned cornflour. This produces lovely crisp edges – one of the pleasures of tofu – but you must shake off the excess cornflour and fry it in really hot oil, otherwise the pieces become claggy.
The thing I’ve noticed – and food writer Melissa Clark wrote about this in The New York Times a while back – is that stir-frying, where you keep the ingredients in your wok on the move, stops tofu becoming crisp and coloured. You need to leave it alone initially, not constantly toss it around. Once the tofu is golden you can add other ingredients to your wok or add the crisp tofu to a partially prepared dish.
I’m neither vegan nor vegetarian, so why use tofu at all? As we’re being urged to stop eating so much meat, tofu – a protein – is one way to do this. It also stretches a dish, allowing you to replace half the expensive king prawns in a dish, for example, with tofu. But the truth is, I like it. I like its crispiness, and the way it both sucks them up and mutes strong flavours. Tofu can, when cooked with the hottest chillis, roll round your mouth emitting, by turn, heat and its soothing antidote. That makes it unique.
Best tofu recipes to try in 2022
Thai-style red curry with tofu and spring vegetables
Once you’ve made the curry base, this is very quick. There’s nothing wrong with using a bought Thai curry paste but they always need a bit of help, so I add fresh spices. You can just add cubes of tofu to this – you don’t need to fry them – but I prefer them fried.