Asian Tofu by Andrea Nguyen
Enter Andrea Nguyen, who has already written fine books on her own Vietnamese-Chinese-American heritage and the multiplicity of Asian dumplings. (Go to her website www. vietworldkitchen.com for a trove of knowledge and a handy shopping app called 'Asian Market Shopper.') Unlike many Western cookbooks, her Asian Tofu does not try to wheedle doubting Thomases into liking the stuff. The roughly 80 tofu based recipes simply treat the star ingredient as a good, useful food that belongs to cooks on this continent as securely as pasta or sushi.
Bean curd may have been invented in China but those who have eaten their way around a few corners of the Asian culinary map will already know that it is a centuries-old citizen of lands east (Korea, Japan) and south (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore). It can be as demure as white gloves or as in-your-face as a karate kick. The split personalities revealed in this midsized book range from lightly set custards and cheesy lumps to meaty-textured masses, noodle-like ribbons, crinkly pellicles and - in fermented form - the essence of deep, funky wakeup-call umami.
Nguyen doesn't try to outdo the longtime tofu advocates William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi (The Book of Tofu) in exhaustive exegesis. But like them she begins with careful directions for making soy milk from real beans and turning
Using a fairly orthodox starters-to-desserts chapter organization with leeway for some unclassifiables, Nguyen moves easily among seven or eight different Asian traditions. Chinese, Japanese and Korean food gets the lion's share of attention. But several corners of Southeast Asia contribute other ideas, from Indonesia (a tamal-like dish of coconut-enriched tofu steamed in banana leaves) or Vietnam (chicken parts baked after being marinated in fermented red tofu) to Thailand (a version of pad Thai with the distinctive accents of palm sugar, tamarind, fish sauce and dried shrimp).
When it comes to newer byways, Nguyen steers a likable course between conservatism and makeover-mania. Her interest in Indian cooks' ever-broadening use of tofu as a paneer or milk stand-in produces soy-fuelled takes on pakoras, saag paneer and filled chickpea crepes, as well as a version of Indian milk fudge made with a combination of tofu and condensed milk. She also picks up on restaurateurs' inventions like 'tofu steak burgers' (good sturdy slices steeped in a gingery marinade and pan-grilled, courtesy of the 'California Grill' in Taipei), 'tofu French fries' (from a Japanese pub in the real California), and the Manhattan-based Baohaus's tofu version of its gua bao (Taiwan-style soft white buns folded around braised pork belly). And the brief dessert chapter contains other ingenious hybrids like Nguyen's own maple ice cream made with tofu and soy milk - meant to be served with savoury garnishes - and a couple of ideas for repurposing the soy-milk lees from homemade tofu in the form of chocolate chip cookies and raised doughnuts.
To dispatch some quibbles: Since Nguyen's modestly proportioned collection doesn't attempt to cram in every bean curd
This being the age of 'enhanced content' for printed books, we can hope to see some obscurities cleared up online. Meanwhile, there's no mistaking the excellence of the work as a whole. Would that all cookbooks could whack recipe directions into such graceful English or were so free of airhead prattle. I had some happy kitchen adventures, including a magical pairing of tofu with Chinese 'century' or 'thousand-year' eggs; another with Japanese shiso and crisp-fried baby sardines; and a dish employing tofu as a sesame-laced cold dressing for string beans. I can also report that the 'steak burgers' were as satisfying as promised. But my real favourite was a nifty interpretation of the Laotian meat (or chicken, or fish) salad called laap or larb using lemongrass-infused pressed tofu.
In brief: This book should be a priority for anyone with the slightest interest in Asian cuisines.