A year or two before its demise Gourmet magazine introduced a "meatless meal" page. "Just try one meal meatless!" -- or something to that effect -- Ruth Reichl encouraged readers when she introduced the column in her editor's intro.
Great idea, I thought. Just please no bean curd-as-meat concoctions.
But several month later, there it was -- a recipe for marinated and grilled tofu. That column summed up everthing that's wrong with how bean curd is perceived by much of the Western world: as a meat substitute absent any of redeeming that must be doctored as if it were meat to be rendered edible. And barely edible at that.
Twenty-five years ago I too eschewed tofu, and it's only living in Asia for over a decade that has altered my view of the food. When it's bad, it's so bad. But when it's made well and prepared appropriately bean curd can make you question everything you believed about the superiority of meat.
(Note: I'm not now, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be, probably, a vegetarian.)
By now the Japanese prowess with the soy bean is well known. But high-quality, entirely luscious bean curd is also easily found on Taiwan, in parts of China, and in Malaysia (and probably elsewhere). Since moving to Kuala Lumpur, especially, I've become a Bean Curd Freaks.
In this house there is no time of the day that is not tofu appropriate.
Taufu fah (dou hua in Mandarin) -- steaming hot scoopable soft fresh bean curd drizzled with palm sugar syrup -- is a breakfast of champions. Substitute chili oil, black vinegar, soy sauce, and chopped Sichuan pickles for the sugar syrup, and it's an unbeatable lunch. We eat tofu for dinner several times a week -- the soft stuff in a Chinese-style light soup with tomato, ginger, and leafy greens (accompanied by chopped chili-and-soy dipping sauce), the firm stuff in mapo tofu, stir-fried with oyster mushrooms and scallions, or "steamed with all manner of condiments. A big jar of fermented bean curd, aka Chinese cheese", has a permanent spot in the door of our refrigerator. We spread it on rye crackers, slather it over chicken before putting the bird in a bamboo steamer, stir fry it with spinach, spoon it up straight.
Writing that paragraph has made me hungry. That's how much I love bean curd. I revere it as much as I revere a nicely grilled T-bone or pork chop. I eat more bean curd than I do beef, chicken or pork, not for political, moral or dietary reasons, but simply because after going a day without I crave the stuff.
Now -- if you don't live in Asia, finding good bean curd can be difficult. I'd never eaten tofu before I met Dave. He added it to the spaghetti he served me on one of our first dates. (In those days Dave also volunteered at the food co-op and baked his own wheat bread). While I appreciated the effort that went into the meal, I found the rubbery batons in my spaghetti sauce rather vile.
But times are changing. Good bean curd is becoming a bit easier to find in the USA. Googling "artisan tofu" brought up a number of makers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Portland, Vermont and southern California. I'm sure there are others.
So what I want to say here folks is: give bean curd a chance! If you enjoy Asian food and have access to some decent tofu it's a natural addition to your menus. Don't grill it, don't saute it and add to pasta sauce, don't try to make ice cream with it because you're going for a "healthy" alternative to dairy products. Love the bean for what it is. Treat it properly in the kitchen, and it will love you back.
I like steaming bean curd. Firm bean curd, when most of its moisture has been lost by one means or another (I'll get to that), is a fantstic sponge. I love soft tofu but I prefer firm tofu. I like the dense-yet-creamy texture, and the slightly fermented, almost one-quarter-way-to-tempeh that you get with really good specimens. The stronger flavor stands up well to seasonings -- including chili which, if you are a regular reader, you know by now I'm addicted to.
So, how do you maximize the flavor-sucking sponginess of your bean curd? First, start with the firmest you can find. Then, wrap the cakes in towels and place a good heavy weight on it. (I use a cookie sheet topped with any canned products in my pantry.) And just leave it there, the longer the better. A lot of recipes recommend a half hour or an hour but several hours, if you have them to spare, is preferable.
Even better: press your tofu for a couple hours and then, if you live somewhere with fairly clean air and a good strong sun, set it out to sunbathe (protected with cheesecloth or a not-so-fine strainer, if you like) for up to half a day. This is how our host in Mae Salong, northern Thailand prepared her tofu before she stirred it into a wonderful ginger-tomato-yellow bean paste sauce. Time in the sun might set the tofu to "fermenting" just a wee bit, which will amplify the soy bean taste (don't worry, you won't end up with Chinese cheese) -- a good thing if you're going heavy with the chilies.
I can't deny that the recipe below results in a pretty healthy main dish. But don't hold that against poor, misunderstood tofu.
Spicy and Salty Steamed Bean Curd
Another not-quite recipe, malleable to your palate. Stir together the amounts of ingredients I suggest below, then sample it and add more of anything to taste. I like mine quite winey and very heavy on the chilies. What you add or don't add will also depend on the quality of your black beans (old, not-so-great ones will taste saltier) and your chili paste (some are much saltier than others). Remember that steaming will bring out whatever moisture remains in the bean curd, and add more, so the sauce should taste too strong when the tofu is added.
A variation to this recipe: make the sauce and toss short pork ribs in it. Arrange tofu on a plate and then mound the pork ribs on top. Steam the whole thing together.
Note: this recipe also work quite nicely with fish fillets/steaks -- something strong, like mackerel, tuna or salmon.
4 cakes tofu, pressed of as much water as possible and (optional) sun-dried for up to 4 hours
1.5 Tbsp Chinese rice wine (hua tiao jiu or the clear stuff) or dry sherry, white wine in a pinch
1 Tbsp soy sauce (not dark)
1.5 tsp sesame oil
pinch of sugar
1 Tbsp chili paste (preferably Sichuan Pixian chili bean paste)
1/2 Tbsp ground dry chilies (optional, for chili hounds)
1/2 Tbsp (heaped) roughly chopped fermented black beans (if yours are kind of shrivelled and very salty, give them a rinse and pat them dry.
1/2 Tbsp chopped garlic
1/2-1 Tbsp chopped ginger
2 scallions, green and white part
A handful of cilantro leaves/stem
- Cut each cake of tofu into 4 or 6 squares.
- In a bowl large enough to hold the bean curd mix together the rice wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, chili paste, ground chilies (if using), black beans, garlic, and ginger. Taste the mixture and add whatever you like -- more wine, more chilies, more beans. Remember that the sauce will be diluted during steaming, so it should be just a little bit too spicy, too salty, too winey. But not too sesame oily.
- Place the bean curd cubes in the sauce, gently stir to coat, and leave to marinate for at least 30 minutes and up to 1.5 hours.
- Mound the bean curd on a plate sized to fit your steamer -- or in a bowl -- and pour any leftover sauce on top.
- Steam for an hour. While the bean curd is steaming roughly chop together the scallions and cilantro.
- Serve the tofu sprinkled with scallions/tofu and serve with a light Chinese greens-ginger-tomato soup (recipe here) or some stir-fried greens (recipe here).