That wobbly block you see, next to the bean sprouts, on the shelves of your supermarket, tofu, is not food gone wrong. And yet, people who do not eat tofu dishes tend to think of tofu as a leaching sponge made for Birkenstock-clad hippies. It is cold and jiggling. It is molded into a block. It’s said to taste of chalk. It wobbles unsteadily—nay, dangerously, even—when you plop the glob out from its tray. You worry that you’ll fail to find a way to make tofu a palatable substitute for roast duck or a plump Sunday roast. Maybe you were disappointed the first time you had it, when you opened the takeout box and found a disintegrating scramble swishing around and around like a menacing void.
More than a few have laid into tofu for being a dull companion, but to our mind tofu may be the loveliest wallflower of our time. See, tofu dishes have been cherished as a staple in Asia for centuries. The cheese of Asia, what Brie is to France, is how we should be thinking about tofu dishes. If you skew anti-tofu, here are the main reasons tofu dishes get a bad rap—and all the reasons why these anti-tofu demonstrations are wrong.
Diners crowd around a beautifully crisped slab of tofu the way mobs fawn over the Mona Lisa. When extra-firm tofu is properly browned and crisped for that ostentatious crunch, vegetarian banh mi sandwiches and stir-fries leap out and dazzle with textural summersaults, says Serious Eats. At Superiority Burger, in New York, the TFT (tofu fried tofu) looks like a fried-chicken sandwich, smells like it, and is as crunchy and juicy as your favorite buttermilk-bathed bird. Slabs of tofu are dredged in a special blend of flours and fried in a shallow pot, creating a crunchy blistered crust. Sandwiched with a slather of mayonnaise, coleslaw and peppers, the tofu—encrusted with a salty, rich, golden, craggy shell—shatters in your mouth.
Across the food aisle, tofu appears meek, bookish, compliant. But when tofu befriends brash sauces and aromatic spices—or rebels with a stroke of teriyaki glaze—the wild child who lives inside the mild-mannered tofu block could leave your mind reeling. At Millennium, in San Francisco, crunchy wedges of tofu are left to soak in a velvety-red bath of coconut tikka masala (luxuriously creamy, tangy, spicy).
A number of chefs pledge themselves to the golden child, crisp firm tofu. So much so that others in the soybean family can feel attacked. Like all large families, each member of this one is special and needs to be doted on. If you ever get a chance to visit Orange County’s Little Saigon, in California, you’ll want to visit Dong Phuong Tofu, whose peeps know their way around the soybean. The shelves are lined with specialty Asian items like Dong Phuong soy milk, tofu pudding, and white tofu cake (in plain, mushroom onion, and lemongrass chili varieties).
If there’s any chance of tofu dishes claiming breakfast, it’s with by Chloe’s delicate tofu scramble. Tofu is smashed and doctored so that the tofu, a vegan substitute, resembles gently cooked scrambled eggs—soft, tender, creamy. The tofu scramble is served with a Sunday-morning assortment of maple sausage, spinach, avocado, and hearty 7-grain toast. The genius is that it’s all vegan.
If you want to lure tofu into a delicate brain operation that will have it perform as meat, you needn’t a team of surgeons—just a brainy chef. With the help of a professional, tofu can be a charming substitute that gently suggest the flavors of meat. Want tofu to taste “meaty”? Treat it as such. At Superiority Burger (the TFT makes a second appearance because we love it that much), squares of tofu are plunged in and left to sop up an umami-rich broth of beans and mushrooms. The tofu gets a dash of “meant for meat” seasonings (sumac, cocoa, garlic, coffee) to build a deep, complex flavor reminiscent of meat. The tofu sandwich is so good that the next time someone tries to impress you with a Southern fried-chicken dinner, there will be only one response: where’s the tofu?
Not ready to give up on your meat just yet? For an excellent and unfussy adventure, try a heady bowl of Korean-style tofu stew (with meat or seafood) from your local Korean restaurant or caterer. It’s a complex stew of spicy, pungent, deeply fermented flavors. Better still, hunks of pork belly or littleneck clams and prawns, and soft lobes of tofu, bob to the surface as you spoon and slurp—you get everything you want, without having to substitute tofu for meat. The fiery-red stew is topped with a dash of scallions and a freshly cracked egg. The tofu curd tastes creamy in your mouth and the umami-rich flavors will crescendo as you dig to the bottom of the bowl.
Whereas the worst grades of supermarket tofu can be unpleasantly mealy, fresh artisan tofu is “manna from the heavens,” according to the Los Angeles Times. If you want a first-class taste, David Chang’s new restaurant, Majordomo in Los Angeles, does a riff on tomatoes and mozzarella and substitutes the cheese with what else but fresh tofu.
Tofu is known for its savory dishes, but in Asia it’s also treated as dessert. The Taiwanese desserts parlor Meet Fresh, with outposts around the globe, offers more than a few kinds of concoctions. Joyful mounds of ice cream and shaved ice are studded with gems of mochi, taro rice balls, boba, and creamy azuki beans. But the lifelines are the boba and peanut tofu puddings. A great ice cream substitute, these tofu dessert dishes will draw you in with their powers. Cool and lusciously creamy cubes of tofu are drizzled with a thimble of syrup that’ll light a spark in your mouth. The tofu is exquisitely tender—so tender it tears delicately away from the curve of your spoon.
As you watch the parade of tofu dishes you may want something delicious for yourself. There are plenty of caterers in your area who make overtures to tofu.