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Everything I Never Knew About Tofu

Growing up in the United States, I received an awful education in tofu. Maybe you did, too.

I didn't grow up eating tofu, but I did grow up with plenty of beliefs about it. Maybe you had these same beliefs—assumptions, really—drilled into you via popular media, cookbooks, magazines, or just the general way people talked about it. I was indoctrinated to see tofu as nothing more than a sorry meat replacement: a bland, watery brick of soybean solids embraced exclusively by California vegans and health nuts. That's how I knew tofu, and I'm pissed about it.

I love this cooking video from the great Lucas Sin, in which he prepares tofu two ways. He opens the video by discussing tofu's reputation here in the States versus where he grew up in Hong Kong.

"I got here to the U.S., got here to America, and people started telling me and teaching me how to sear tofu," Sin says. "Turns out in the U.S., or much of the Western cooking world, tofu is primarily a meat substitute—which is to say that it needs to be cooked the way we cook steak. Those sort of ideas, I believe, are sort of archaic."

"You don't need to treat tofu as steak," he says with gravity directly into the camera.

Americans vs. tofu

Tofu's weak reputation among many Americans is the unfortunate result of a white-dominated culinary culture and its tendency to view food through a narrow Western lens. Google "tofu uses" and you'll find ways to insert it into sandwiches, quiche, and just about any dish that calls for meat. Thinking about tofu as a 1:1 substitution is never going to demonstrate its greatest strengths; that forces tofu to play by our own culture's rules, and it doesn't work that way.

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In Tofu Cookery, a best-selling cookbook first released in 1983, author Louise Hagler lays out many tofu recipes including cold dips, tomato rice soup, tofu meatballs, and mushroom tofu burgers. Her author bio declares her a "pioneer in creating vegan cuisine and vegan cookbooks." Though it was released 40 years ago, the book is a microcosm of how Americans see tofu to this day: it's a meat replacement and not much else. It's also considered bland, which is entirely the failing of those who mistreat it. We Westernized an Eastern ingredient, and in the process we fucked it up for everyone.

The one thing the stereotypes get right about tofu is the California part. Here in Southern California, tofu is part of everyday life. It's integral to soups and stews in Koreatown tofu houses and soondubu restaurants. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, only relocating to Los Angeles as an adult, I had a whole lot to unlearn.

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"When I was with someone who had white grandparents, they would literally scrunch up their nose and gag when I offered my orange tofu," says chef and culinary producer Lo Hoang.

There are many ways to cook tofu that aren't simply grilling or thoughtlessly lopping it onto a salad. In fact, if you know how to handle it properly, it can be one of the most versatile proteins you ever cook with. Here are some things I wish I knew about tofu sooner.

Freeze firm tofu first, then press it

Chef Lucas Sin does a great job explaining how to cook both firm and silken tofu. With firm tofu, freezing it first will help purge it of water—and the name of the game is to take out as much water as possible.

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"From my tests, it's much better to freeze an entire block of tofu than to cut it up first and then freeze it afterwards," he says in the video. You'll still have to press it after freezing and thawing, either using your palms or some paper towels, but however you do it, releasing tofu of its moisture (like squeezing the water out of a sponge) is of the utmost importance. It not only creates a better pan sear, but the tofu is then better equipped to absorb the flavors you're cooking with.

"Pressing any excess water out of tofu is a pro move," says Hoang.

Let tofu be a sponge for sauce

"It's not a meat replacement," says Hoang. "It's a protein-dense block of neutral mass. People make fun of the blandness, but it's such a good vehicle for sauce."

After adding aromatics, soy sauce, abalone sauce, wine, and a potato starch slurry, Sin adds a little bit of water—"Not to cover the tofu, but to give it a little bit of liquid for it to soak up," he says before swirling and cooking the tofu with the sauce.

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Tofu works well as a braised dish. It's a little bit like pasta, in that way. Pasta noodles are always best when they absorb the sauce they're cooked in; tofu works similarly, and in many ways, it's an even better sponge than pasta.

Start pairing tofu with meat, especially in soups

Again, thinking of tofu as solely a replacement product not only limits tofu, but also negates the cultures that originated it.

At Surawon Tofu House in Koreatown here in Los Angeles, silken tofu is the star of the show. Soondubu-jijgae, aka Korean soft tofu stew, is a dish that often contains meat. Surawon offers the option of spicy beef or pork along with an assorted mixture that include oysters, shrimp and clams, intestines, mushrooms, kimchi, and fish eggs. The soft, silky tofu melts into the bubbling cauldron, creating a luxurious, hearty soup.

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Tofu plays well with meat, but because it's been relegated to vegan-specific dishes in the States for so long, that fact is often completely lost on many folks.

Tofu can be the best thing on the menu, so order it

My trip to Surawon was part of what initially turned me on to tofu's exciting possibilities; that bubbling batch of soondubu blew my feeble little mind. But even beyond the vast landscape of Asian cuisine, there are countless diverse ways to enjoy tofu. If you aren't comfortable cooking it at home, your best bet is to get it at a restaurant—and there are plenty of options.

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The way tofu melts into the aforementioned soondubu is incredible, as is mapo tofu, a spicy Sichuan dish made with beef. Ethiopian tofu always has a ton of flavor and spice, making full use of tofu's "blank canvas" properties. Nigerian awara, which is more like a tofu cake, is often made by dipping the tofu in egg, frying it, and serving it with vegetables. Indonesian Martabak Tahu is a lovely tofu stuffed pancake made with canned corned beef, and Dau Hu Nuoc Duong is a deliciously sweet tofu pudding from Vietnam.

Throwing bare chunks of tofu on a salad or a sandwich is almost a guaranteed letdown. The next time you see it at a restaurant that serves international fare, order it. Whatever you're served might shake some preconceived notions loose.

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