Re-discovering Tofu 豆腐 (dòufu): It's all about texture

By Charleen - September 24, 2019

Tofu is not just for vegetarians. Infinitely versatile with a wide variety of textures, tofu absorbs and delivers fantastic sauce flavors along with a protein punch. Chances are there's a dish out there that will bring you back for more... Here are the entry level dishes that got my family eating tofu, from cookbook authors Fuchsia Dunlop, Grace Young and Cameron Stauch.
Tofu in fresh tomato sauce (from Vegetarian Viet Nam, p. 67)
Spinach soup with silken tofu and pork (from Land of Fish and Rice, p. 228)

As a child growing up in Los Angeles, I disliked all forms of squishy tofu, relegating this Chinese-staple to the same realm as the quivering steamed egg custard that my parents served with soy sauce and minuscule dried silver fish. In true cross-cultural fashion, I next encountered tiny silver fish with black-dot eyes in my 40s, when I was treated to a fantastic Greek meal on the island of Naxos, but that is another story. I was in my 50s before I discovered that I could make truly delicious crave-worthy, tofu-based dishes.

Best soy bean foods for beginners

Sure, there are soy products related to tofu that I enjoyed eating as a child. It's all about the texture. One of my favorite versions of tofu translates to five spiced dry tofu 五香豆腐乾 (wǔxiāng dòufu gān) These come in firm brown, marinated squares, about 1 cm in thickness, with a hearty, firm cheese-like texture that can be sliced thinly. Sliced or julienned dry tofu is often stir-fried with strips of pork and Chinese chives. With my childhood prejudices intact, I happily substituted brown cubes of dry tofu for regular white tofu when dishes such as Susanna Foo's Tofu, Eggplant, Mushrooms and Sun Dried Tomatoes came up in my Wok Wednesdays cooking club. Finely diced dry tofu can be added to ground meats and sliced dry tofu to many stir-fries. The texture is innocuous enough that people don't even realize they are happily eating a type of tofu.

Examples of five spiced dry tofu. They come in different thicknesses.
Susanna Foo's (Dry) Tofu, Eggplant, Mushrooms and Sun Dried Tomatoes from The Breath of a Wok, p 143.
The only other soy based food that I liked growing up, are bean curd sheets or tofu skins 豆腐皮 (dòufu pí). Also known as yuba, these are the slightly chewy thin sheets that are collected from the surface of soy milk as it dries out, which function to deliver luscious sauce flavors trapped in their folds. Tofu skins can be used as a gluten-free substitute for egg roll wrappers, although I have not yet cooked with them. 

While these two more readily likable soy bean products are often niche items found mainly in Asian groceries, Trader Joe carries two versions of dry tofu 豆腐乾, one seasoned with terikaki sauce and the other with Sriracha. Both dry tofu and tofu skins celebrate firmer, more substantial textures than classic tofu.

Spinach Soup with Silken Tofu and Pork

Ironically, it was the softest of tofus, the silken tofu that first beckoned to me from its white fluted plastic container. It was ok in smoothy recipes, but I could still taste the subtle tofu flavor behind the strawberries. And no, I could not sneak tofu in undetected as a substitute for ricotta cheese in skillet lasagne rolls
Fine textured silken tofu inverted out of its container and cut into 5 mm cubes
 It was my adaptation of Fuchsia Dunlop's Spinach Soup with Silken Tofu and Pork from Land of Fish and Rice (2016), that led to the revelation that tofu celebrated as itself in a dish could truly be crave-worthy. This is the first tofu dish my husband ate without mentioning that he dislikes tofu, and my daughter actually started requesting that I make it.
Ingredients for spinach soup with silken tofu, using prosciutto instead of pork 

This silky soup is beautiful, with thin, ribbony strands of green spinach and tiny white cubes of tofu suspended in chicken broth lightly thickened to lovingly envelop the tongue. I did not have pork handy the first time I made it, and substituted little cubes of prosciutto. I have also made it with pork as written, and pan-crisped pancetta, but prefer the prosciutto. This variation makes the spinach soup into an even prettier and faster dish to make.

Click here for the recipe for this soup, along with vegan variations. 
Delicious silky spinach, tofu and proscuitto soup -- ready in less than 25 minutes.
🐾 Run a butter knife around the edge of the tofu container to make it easier to invert the entire block in one piece. Depending on the shape of the container, you can also cut along a corner seam to release the fragile block.
🐾 Soak spinach in a large basin of water, and then gently remove the leaves from the top after dirt has had a chance to settle to the bottom. There is no need to blanch the spinach as it goes into a boiling broth anyways.

Real Ma Po Tofu

Emboldened by this initial success with silken tofu, I used it in place of firm tofu to make a classic Chinese tofu dish from the Szechuan region. Mapo tofu 麻婆豆腐 (Má pó dòufu), or pock-marked granny's tofu, is named after Mrs. Chen, the elderly woman credited with inventing the dish in 1862, because her face was scarred by small pox. 

I was first introduced to this dish when a visiting Chinese aunt from Brazil treated me to a meal. When I arrived, she was chatting with the chef. To my profound disappointment, when I returned to the same restaurant on my own, I received an insipid dish with chunks of tofu floating in a watery brown soy sauce, completely lacking meat, chilies or any aromatics. Thirty-three years later, I discovered that I could make mapo tofu myself, using Fuchsia Dunlop's recipe, which tasted better than at any restaurant.
Pock-marked Mother Chen's Bean Curd (ma po dou fu) from Land of Plenty, pp 313-314.
Although you have to find a few specialty items, such as Szechuan peppercorns and doubanjiang 豆瓣醬 (Pixian Broad Bean Sauce or chili bean paste), these can be obtained at Asian groceries or online and can last a few years in the refrigerator. The quality of the products at The Mala Market is unparalleled, but since they make one trip a year to China to source the annual harvest in the 7th lunar month, late Sept-Oct is the best time to buy before they sell out. The fermented, dried black beans in this dish are the same as the ones used for Cousin Judy's tofu with black bean sauce (click here to read more about black beans and making that dish), in authentic Beef and Broccoli recipes, or in the steamed Chinese spareribs found in Cantonese Dim Sum restaurants.
Dry toasting Szechuan peppercorns. 
Adding doubanjiang to stain the oil red
Tofu cubes added after fermented black beans and chicken stock
Despite the thin, oily scary-red sauce, the dish is not super hot (nothing like a habanero sauce), but instead features a balance of several strong flavors. The major flavors are known as  麻  , or numbing-spicy, from the Szechuan peppercorns and the doubanjiang/chili flakes/powder, respectively. The black beans add a salty aromatic 香 Xiāng touch, the tofu adds tenderness 嫩 Nèn, and the leeks or scallions bring freshness 鮮 Xiān in color and flavor. 

🐾 Doubanjiang and Szechuan peppercorns vary in terms of quality and flavor. The first time you try the recipe, start by using 1/2 to 3/4 of the amounts called for until you can assess their strength. For example, the premium 3-year aged doubanjiang from Mala Market is much more concentrated in flavor compared to the Chinese grocery store version I had been using.
🐾 If you have only a few spoonfuls of mapo tofu leftover, try adding it to scrambled eggs. It was not the most photogenic dish, but it surely was a divine breakfast, as satisfying as the chorizo sausage gravy biscuits at E2.

Tofu in Fresh Tomato Sauce

The final step in my discovery that I could crave not only the flavors of the sauce, but also the texture and flavor of tofu itself came from a vegetarian cookbook that I won from one of the monthly Wok Wednesdays giveaway contests.

Vegetarian Viet Nam by Cameron Stauch taught me how to press and pan-fry tofu, and how to add a rich dimension of flavor by grinding up dried shiitake mushrooms in a coffee grinder.
Mise en place of the ingredients. Use a dish towel to absorb the moisture from pressing the tofu. I sandwich them between two cutting boards. Grind up extra mushroom powder to use as a seasoning for other dishes!
The secret to transforming the texture of the tofu is pan-frying or deep frying it to create a crisp, brown crust.  After drying the cubes and prepping the other ingredients, Fry on the first side undisturbed for 3 minutes, before turning. The remaining sides may only need 2-2.5 minutes.
Add fresh tomatoes simmered to a deep, thick red sauce enriched with a bit of garlic and soy sauce, to arrive at a perfect tofu dish!
The most difficult part of this dish is browning the little cubes of tofu on all 6 sides. The last time I made this dish, I decided to cut strips of tofu, which made the browning of 4 sides so much easier. I left the ends unfried, and enjoyed the contrast between the firm fried sides and the partially exposed creamy interior. After the tofu cooled, it was easy to finish cutting them into cubes before adding to the fresh tomato sauce for this amazing, unami-laden dish.

🍃 Use a clean dishtowel instead of single-use paper towels. The dishtowel absorbs a lot more water so you can get away with a single pressing/blotting event instead of having to change saturated, falling-apart paper towels. Plus, it is easy to wash in your next load of laundry!
🐾 Combining the flavors of soy and tomato sauce is a bit unusual, but gives a wonderful result. My father added a bit of soy sauce to all of his Italian-American inspired dishes. 
🐾 Check the bottom of my post on pan-fried noodle cakes for more tips on pan-frying (as well as browning meats) without sticking.

Keep an open mind: the possibilities are infinite!

From a standard carton of tofu, I get 24 cubes of pan-fried tofu. As they sit on the plate awaiting combination with the fantastic sauce, it is a race to see how many I lose to my daughter's nibbling. She has come a long way from calling out the tofu disguised as ricotta to craving its mild, but distinct flavor, whether in silky soups or panfried to a crisp, brown coating overlying a creamy interior.

Just as it took me 10 years to perfect the crisp coating for my General Tso's chicken (read about it here), this pressed and pan-fried tofu would be ideal used as a base for lots of different sauces and flavors. What should I start with? Basting them in char sui sauce for my non-pork eating friends the next time I make Chinese bbq pork? Using them for a vegetarian version of General Tso's tofu?  Tossing them into the Indo-Chinese chicken/cauliflower Manchurian sauce that my son loves?

If you love tofu, I hope I have introduced you some easy dishes with new flavors. If you dislike tofu, give it another chance. The right recipe and preparation may change your mind.

Click here for links to on-line versions of the recipes, where available.
Fuschia Dunlop's Mapo Tofu.

The cookbooks...

From the rich, clear flavors of Jiangsu cuisine (eastern China), to the spicy, complex flavors of Szechuan (western China) dishes, and the fresh, brightness of Vietnamese cooking, these books are all  fabulous, with clear, easy to follow recipes and interesting writing.

Land of Fish and Rice
by Fuschia Dunlop
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc., 2016

Land of Plenty
by Fuchsia Dunlop
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc., 2003

Vegetarian Viet Nam
by Cameron Stauch
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc., 2018

The Breath of a Wok
by Grace Young
Simon & Schuster, 2004

What are your favorite tofu dishes?

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