That wobbly block next to the bean sprouts, on the shelves of your supermarket, tofu, is not food gone wrong. Yet, people who do not eat tofu dishes tend to think of it as a leaching sponge made for Birkenstock-clad hippies. It is cold and jiggly. It’s said to taste of chalk. It wobbles unsteadily—nay, dangerously—when the glob plops out from its tray. You may worry that you’ll fail to make tofu a palatable substitute for a plump roast duck. Maybe you were disappointed the first time you had it, when you opened the takeout box and found a disintegrating scramble.
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 dazzle, 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 crust. The tofu sandwich is slathered with mayo and topped with coleslaw and peppers. The tofu itself—encrusted with a salty, golden, craggy shell—shatters apart 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 creamy, tangy coconut tikka masala.
Tofu comes in many forms. If you ever get a chance to visit Orange County’s Little Saigon, in California, check out Dong Phuong Tofu. The peeps there 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.
The key to delicate scrambled eggs? Tofu. Restaurant by Chloe’s delicate tofu scramble will have you fooled. Tofu is smashed and doctored so that the tofu 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 ingenious part 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 call on a team of surgeons—just a brainy chef. With the help of a professional, tofu can 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 marinated in 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, you’ll only have one response: where’s the tofu?
Not ready to give up on your meat just yet? Try a heady bowl of Korean-style tofu stew from your local Korean restaurant or caterer. It’s a complex stew of spicy, pungent, deeply fermented flavors. Hunks of pork belly, littleneck clams and prawns, and soft lobes of tofu bob to the surface as you spoon and slurp—you get everything you want, tofu and 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 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, 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 including 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. 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.