Bean curd gives you wings
In my attempts to eat good vegetarian food over the last couple of weeks there’s been something missing. And yes, not to be glib about it, but that something is meat. That is to say the element that meat brings to a dish, the significant piece of protein around which other elements are built. I can see why all that weird fake meat you get from Quorn and Linda McCartney is so popular in fulfilling this element of meat’s meal time role without an animal having to die. But are their more interesting veggie meat substitutes that aren’t just fake meat? I’ve never tried tofu before, perhaps now was the time for it.
As somebody less than familiar with it, though, I wondered just what is tofu, though? And where does it come from? And, most importantly, what can I cook with it? What flavours does it go with? Exhaustive culinary encyclopaedia McGee on Food & Cooking describes tofu as: “curdled soy milk, a concentrated mass of protein and oil formed by coagulating the dissolved proteins with salts that yoke them and the protein-coated oil droplets together”, which may not be the most evocative or appetising description, but it does tell you exactly what you’re getting.
“Tofu” is a Japanese word (Mandarin Chinese has it as “doufu” and Cantonese as “tau fu”), a word that first appears late in the 12th century. However, it’s origins lie in ancient China. Quite how long tofu has been made in China is something of a mystery. The first recorded reference to it is in around 950 AD, but it’s generally felt to be much older. Soy milk existed in China from at least the First Century AD and the popular myth of tofu’s origin goes back even further. According to this story, tofu was invented by Liu An, King of Huai-nan in North China in the 2nd century BC.
Liu An, a descendant of the imperial Han dynasty, became king at the age of 15 after his father attempted a revolt against his half-brother, the emperor Wu Ti. In contrast to his father’s violent temper, Liu An was known to be bookish and a patron of the arts. In particular, he was interested in Taoist philosophy, cosmology, alchemy and other semi-magical practices. As a result of this, Liu An would later become regarded as the father of most chemistry, as Chinese tradition prefers the idea of things having an origin in noble individuals. Given the elaborate series of chemical transformations soy beans most go through to become tofu, tofu was one of the inventions ascribed to Liu An.
Indeed, in the 14th century Sun Ta-Yap of the Yuan Dynasty claimed that Liu An’s tofu based diet caused him to grow younger, sprout wings and ascend to heaven. The truth of Liu An’s death, however, is sadly more prosaic and more grim. Gradually growing more and more bitter about his father’s death (starving himself through fasting when sent into exile), Liu An planned a revolt of his own against the emperor and, on its failure, took his own life rather than be arrested. While it is, perhaps, possible that Liu An was the originator of tofu, there really is no evidence to suggest as much. It seems just as likely that it came in as an import from India or Mongolia, but there really is no way of knowing.
The arrival of tofu in the western world is, however, sufficiently recent that records are much better. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that Benjamin Franklin was the first to describe tofu in America. In 1770, Franklin wrote about it in a letter to a John Bartram in which he discusses tofu’s appearance in the writings of Domingo Navarrete, a Dominican friar and missionary from Old Castile who traveled to China in 1657. Navarrete’s work in China during a time of religious persecution for the small but growing Catholic community and the Chinese Rites debates (whether ritual practices and ancestor worship were compatible with Catholic belief, Jesuits thought that they were, Navarrete did not) won him the support of Pope Innocent XI, who tried to make Navarrete bishop of the Chinese missions in the 1670s.
Navarrete turned that position down, but around the same time won wider fame for his 1676 book The History of the Chinese Empire, Government, Ethics and Religion. The book’s contents were heavily anti-Jesuit and, perhaps as a result, once an English language translation appeared, it became more popular in English than in its native language (although Voltaire was reportedly a great admirer as well). With The History of the Chinese Empire becoming so popular in English, it is no surprise that it was Franklin’s main reference point when it came to tofu.
As it happens, McGee’s entry on tofu quotes from Navarrete’s 400 year old writings: “It is the most usual, common, and cheap sort of food all China abounds in, and which all in that empire eat, from the Emperor to the meanest Chinese; the Emperor and great men as a dainty, the common sort as necessary sustenance. It is called Teu Fu, that is paste of kidney beans. I did not see how they made it. They drew the milk out of the kidney beans, and turning it, make great cakes of it like cheeses, as big as a large sieve, and five or six fingers thick. All the mass is as white as the very snow, to look to nothing can be finer. Alone it is insipid, but very good dressed as I say and excellent fried in butter.”
Navarrete’s remarks begin to suggest how tofu might be cooked and, actually, opinions have changed surprisingly little since his time. Just as Navarrete suggests, so people today feel that tofu itself isn’t up to much as a flavour. It’s strength is in absorbing the elements around it. So, if I was going to make a good tofu dish, I was going to need to know exactly what flavours would work with it. My favourite flavour pairing guide, The Flavour Thesaurus, is fairly distinctly focused on a meat and veg diet so has nothing to say on the subject of tofu. Fortunately, I have now come into possession of the more comprehensive but less attractive American The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, which does cover tofu.
When it comes to flavour pairings, The Flavor Bible had a number of suggestions for tofu, which are: “asparagus, cabbage, garlic, ginger, miso, mushrooms, noodles (especially soba, udon), rice (especially fried), salads and salad dressing, scallions, sesame: oil and seeds, soups, soy source, tamari, teriyaki”.
I decided, therefore, to create a marinade for my tofu out of garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil and seeds in the hope that it would take on these flavours and move beyond the “insipid” taste of Navarrete’s undressed bean curd. This I stir fried with udon noodles, pak choi, green peppers and spring onions. The flavours worked well together, but the tofu itself disintegrated into tiny pieces and did not provide quite the vaguely meaty texture and quality that I was looking for. For that, apparently, I would have to freeze it first.
Oddly, tofu is one of the few foods where freezing changes it on a structural level. According to McGee: “When it freezes, the coagulated proteins become even more concentrated, and the solid ice crystals form pockets in the protein network. When the frozen curd thaws, the liquid water flows from the toughened spongy network, especially when the curd is pressed. The sponge is then ready to absorb flavorful cooking liquids, and has a chewier, meatier texture”.
So, after freezing and thawing the tofu, I had another go at my recipe to see whether the soft, spongy bean curd had been changed to become chewier and more absorbent. Being inexperienced with tofu, I was impressed by how much this process did actually change the texture, the pieces were definitely less wet and crumbly and more almost meat-ish and fibrous.
Overall it was OK, but I might need a bit more practice to get tofu really right. I haven’t sprouted any wings yet, perhaps I’ll need a bit more a regular tofu diet to achieve that.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: The first time I had tofu was at El Piano, York’s steadfast veggie restaurant (now a wholly vegan restaurant). I remember really liking it, especially the texture, and being generally confused at the stereotypical complaints about tofu. The good news is I’ve still never had rubbery tofu. In our first attempt it was almost more of a gel. Interesting and inoffensive, but not really noticeable. Our second was actually visible in lumps in the bowl, and even had some kind of texture. I’m not sure what kind – I think fibrous is being a bit generous – but it was definitely a solid. I’d like to keep trying tofu, if, for nothing else, to see how many different consistencies we can manage.