Like many other people in the UK, my first encounter tofu was a veggie stir-fry in a Chinese restaurant.
When I plucked the golden-brown morsel from the mix and popped it in my mouth, I thought there’d been some terrible mistake – or had someone coated and fried a slice of bath sponge as a joke? I’ve heard of stranger things. But no; in the words of my veggie friend, that was ‘just tofu’. Miserable, chewy, spongey and tasteless.
Fast-forward 15 years and I find myself in a tiny wooden restaurant in Tokyo, cross-legged on the floor. I’m served a small bowl of what looks like thick yoghurt topped with some finely chopped green stuff and wood shavings, and dusted with a curious brown powder. Unsure what it is, I take the plunge, dip my spoon in, and taste. It is cool and creamy without being dairy. There’s a sharp twang of green spring onion, lemony aromatics of sansho pepper, savoury Marmite-y taste from shaved bonito, and a punch of salt from a little puddle of soy on top. Incredible – and I nearly fall of my seat when I’m told it is tofu.
Subsequent trips and dinners revealed to me the huge variety of types and textures of tofu, and the wonderful dishes it can be found in. I’ve had it dusted with dried red chilli and served with pickled cabbage and seaweed; I’ve had it paired with wasabi, tomato, shiso leaf, noodles made from forest potatoes; I’ve had it in fish hotpot with daikon, leeks and shitake mushrooms; I’ve even plucked chunks from a simmering stock pot to dip them in beaten chilli egg before gobbling in one!
I discovered tofu to be a gentle giant. An amenable and versatile ingredient, light enough to be paired with sesame, cucumber, yuzu, and the most elegant and delicate of flavours. Yet it can hang with much rowdier characters like ginger, garlic, grilled onion, and even fermented chilli beans!
One of my ultimate comfort dishes is the Chinese classic “ma po tofu”, which is warm and wobbly tofu cubes folded through a rich and unctuous beef and red chilli bean stew, drizzled with scorching chilli oil and dusted with ground mouth-numbing Szechuan pepper. Without tofu the dish would amount to a great deal less. Amongst such powerful flavours, tofu in fact becomes a very modest and unlikely star of the show. The same is true in this particularly wonderful Chinese-inspired recipe for Hot & sour soup, or this incredible Gorgeous gado-gado recipe from Jamie’s Comfort Food.
Since then I’ve wasted no time at all; I’ve made tofu pancakes, tofu omelettes, I’ve marinated tofu and served with grilled shiitake mushrooms, seven spice, soy and shaved celery – don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it!
One of the discoveries of this year for me has been tasting this tofu chocolate pot made by beating melted chocolate into soft tofu – sounds dodgy, but my goodness it’s good.
In short: if you, like me, were once sat in a Chinese restaurant turning your nose up at tofu, I urge you to give it a second chance, because honestly, I love tofu! There. I said it.