For the Love of Tofu
Looking at the soy product as more than a stand-in for meat
"Do you like tofu?" is a rarely used interrogative. Tofu is so broadly disdained; you may as well ask someone if they'd like to smell your fart. It has been tagged with myriad guilt-by-association disses, from being a weird, if innocuous, hippie food, to an epithet denoting godless New York Times-reading liberals, and even, as was circulating a few years back in some conservative circles, as a poison that turns kids gay.
To me, and to Asians in general, tofu doesn't indicate a lifestyle choice, it's just friggin' food--an important food with its own history and complexity, and deserving of respect. But worse than any political connotation, is that it's often dismissed as an insipid raw material existing merely to be transformed into a stand-in for meat. This notion never made sense to me, since 1) if the concept of eating animals is morally problematic, simulating the act is bad, too, and 2) tofu does a very bad job of tasting like meat. Tofurky is a particularly heinous offender. Anyone who claims it resembles turkey in the slightest way is straight-up lying. That's not to discount how useful tofu can be, particularly to supplement restrictive diets, but regarding tofu and meat as mutually exclusive is not seeing the forest for the trees.
This sort of pigeonholing seems hopelessly widespread. The other day, I happened to be watching a cooking competition show on the now-insufferable Food Network (couldn't find the remote) wherein tofu was presented as a "challenging" ingredient. One of the judges, a marginally famous chef, lauded one dish primarily because it tasted "like something other than tofu, which is a good thing," eliciting a hearty round of commiserating chuckles.
To be fair, eating tofu isn't exactly a party in one's mouth. Its texture ranges broadly from creamy and barely solid to dense and chewy, making it exceptionally versatile. But what flavor it does have on its own is admittedly pretty timid, and thus invites being imbued with outside flavors, meaty or otherwise. But even in highly seasoned environments tofu tends to retain a detectable tofu-ness, which hinders its success as a faker.
Japanese hiyayakko, a good example of a very basic preparation, is a block of fresh silken tofu topped with grated ginger, dried fish shavings, soy sauce, and scallions, components that are meant to complement and educe the faintly sweet, vegetal flavor of the soybeans from which tofu is derived. On the other end of this spectrum, fermented or "stinky" tofu is the Asian analogue to aged cheese, having been treated with shrimp brine and processed by microbes into something that is said to smell like warm rotting death, repugnant to the uninitiated but delectable to aficionados. In between, of course, tofu is used in any of a bajillion applications, and, yes, was even touted by Buddhist monks as a means to forgo eating meat because of its high protein content. But I doubt they painted it flesh-colored and molded it into animal shapes before consumption.
Stinky tofu aside, fresh tofu generally has more flavor. And the freshest possible tofu is the one you make yourself. There are only two components, soy milk and a coagulant, or a chemical that will separate the protein and fat from the water in the soy milk. The texture of tofu is highly dependent upon which chemical is doing the coagulating, temperature, and the protein content of the soy milk. And that's where it gets tricky, since store-bought soy milk almost always has sweeteners and other flavors added, and the chemicals traditionally used for coagulation (which impart minimal undesired flavor) are pretty much impossible to find in this area.
Any Asian supermarket should carry pure, unadulterated soy milk, which is perfectly fine for making tofu. Otherwise, you can be hard-core and make your own, and that means procuring soybeans, which is actually pretty easy. They can be found at Asian supermarkets for roughly $1 per pound and in 10-ounce bags for 95 cents at Potung Trading (321 Park Ave.,  962-1510). But I also found that Meyer Seed Company (600 S. Caroline St.,  342-4224, meyerseed.com) sells them, albeit for a steeper $3.75 per pound. The beans are then soaked, liquefied in a blender, cooked, and strained, resulting in genuine fresh soy milk, characterized by a distinctly fresh, almost grassy aroma that you just don't get with store-bought.
Nigari, which is made from seawater and composed primarily of magnesium chloride, is a traditional coagulant; calcium chloride is another. Apparently they are both used as de-icing salts and can be found at auto parts stores. Similarly, gypsum or calcium sulfate, another coagulant, is available as a soil additive for gardening, and is the primary material in drywall.
But I couldn't find any local sources for food-safe versions of these chemicals, with the exception of gypsum, which is used in beer and wine making, and is available through Maryland Homebrew in Columbia, though that's kind of a hike for city dwellers. Luckily, there is another effective coagulant that is both common and cheap: magnesium sulfate, aka epsom salt. It produces great texture, but leaves a slight bitter aftertaste in the tofu. Adding a bit of sea salt offsets that and improves curd-formation to boot.
Once you've got the proper ingredients, actual execution is straightforward. Separate out the curds and then strain them, either by gravity or by force, in order to compact the curds into a single form and expel water until the desired firmness is achieved. This can be done in a tofu press--basically a container with drainage holes and a tight-fitting lid (there are directions for making an ad hoc version below, along with my tofu recipe)--but a strainer works, too.
In the end, you will have a horribly misshapen, but cohesive chunk of coalesced soybean essence, with actual aroma and flavor, and perhaps a better appreciation of what tofu really is or, more importantly, isn't.
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