If there’s anything that summarises the virtuous, worthy perception of vegetarianism, and its reputation for bland, tasteless food, it’s got to be tofu. Even some other vegetarians I’ve met will give tofu a wide berth. They don’t want to be seen as the “tofu-eating type” of vegetarian – you know, the ones who wear sandals and socks, and tote acoustic guitars, like Mike Leigh’s monumentally irritating couple Keith and Candice-Marie in Nuts in May.
I think tofu is unfairly maligned in the Western world. Personally, I really like the stuff. My favourite Chinese dish was always Ma Po Tofu (now I have it without the minced pork or beef), and I am a bit obsessed with inari-age sushi. I think fried tofu lends itself really well to spicy Thai curries, because it absorbs the flavours. But I have always had a hard time convincing people that tofu can be, well, even edible. And it’s even been blamed for global warming. It’s not looking good.
Part of the problem with tofu is that people’s first encounter with it is often at vegetarian health food-type cafes. In Oriental cuisines, tofu is a staple – it is used both in vegetarian and meat dishes, and often freshly made, no vacuum packing or slightly funky-smelling water – and here’s the thing, they know how to cook it. I remember as a student going to these health food cafe type places, usually where a high proportion of the staff had dreadlocks, and you could fill up on vegetarian food for next to nothing. It was hearty, sure – but often pretty lacking in the taste and texture department. You can’t just take tofu out of the packet, chop it up and chuck it in and hope for the best.
Thankfully, the bad old days of bland “wholefood” type vegetarian restaurants are fast receding, as vegetarian cuisine becomes more mainstream and more creative. Well-cooked and well-flavoured tofu is a good source of protein, and can provide calcium, magnesium and iron, as well as other trace elements, and it’s low in fat and calories. It’s easy to start relying on cheese as a vegetarian for your main source of protein – if you go on vegetarian support boards, eating too much cheese is a common worry, particularly for rookie veggies. And it makes sense. In our house, with two cheese lovers around, it’s the food we can often agree on. My partner will happily eat vegetarian dishes if there’s a generous cheese component.
The texture that a lot of people don’t like can be mitigated by using firm tofu instead of the silken kind. I used to think tofu was just tofu, until I bought silken tofu by mistake and it went to mush in my stir-fry. You live and learn. If you want it to have any chewiness to it, dare I say meatiness, you need the firm kind. Silken tofu has its place – for example, making dairy-free cheesecake. Mamma Cucina is a particular favourite with my dad’s wife Sussi, who has a milk allergy, and the main ingredient is silken tofu. It doesn’t quite taste like or have the texture of cheesecake, but it’s close, and much lighter than its cheesy counterpart. Sussi and I have actually been known to get through a whole one in one day *guilty face.
The first thing to do is dry it. It will inevitably come in water – that’s important for keeping it fresh, but conversely, the less liquid the better when it comes to cooking it. This “Tofu for Tofu Haters” guide gives step by step instructions – both a quick method, and a longer one, which takes a little more effort, but I am told is worth it, particularly if you want a good crunchy crust when deep-frying it. I particularly like this for stir fries, and I used the salted boiling water method for the stir fry I made the other day.
I coated the tofu in a mixture of gluten free flour and Chinese five spice, and then shallow-fried it in coconut oil before adding broccoli, greens, chopped garlic, ginger and soy sauce. The texture turned out pretty well. I am going to try the same salted boiling water method to make another favourite tofu dish of mine using this Agedashi Tofu recipe.
Still not confident? Maybe try some of the ready-marinated options out there. My favourites are the Taifun range of marinated, naturally flavoured tofu cutlets. The wild garlic flavour is great for stir fry, while the oregano flavour works well in a pasta dish. The pizza flavour one is strong, but a good veggie substitute for pepperoni due to its spiciness. These have a really firm texture, and the flavours mean that you don’t have to worry about the characteristic blandness.