Asian Tofu by Andrea Nguyen

   IN AN EARLIER PERIOD of North American cultural history, accusing people - anyhow, non-Asians - of eating tofu almost certainly implied other unnatural tendencies like pacifism or unwashed feet. But that was before the decades-long co-opting of the counterculture into middle-class chic. Early along in the crossover process, I recall numbingly sweet frozen tofu being peddled to lunchers at the Forty Carrots restaurant of Bloomingdale's New York City flagship store in the mid-1970s. Other high-tech sugar-charged remakes have been with us ever since. But in increasing measure so has the real tofu cookery of the various Asian cuisines that began accompanying new immigrants to Canada and the United States at about the same time. For years I've longed to see a general-interest cookbook that would address the richness of the subject without sounding as if bean curd consumption were either a fad or a cause.
   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
it into tofu. I recommend reading this opening 'Tofu Tutorial' even if you're not about to attempt the beans-to-curd process (I haven't tackled it yet) because it will help you understand more about the different incarnations (mostly store-bought) used in her subsequent recipes. The recipes in question demonstrate that within tofu's apparent culinary blankness and neutrality lie more tickets to adventure than any other cookbook hints at. Like vegetarian and non-vegetarian cooks everywhere from Singapore to Seoul, Nguyen uses it in ways that may be beautifully austere (Japanese-style chilled tofu with a little scallion, ginger and soy sauce) or brashly sensuous (Sichuan ma po dou fu). People with meatless agendas will find plenty of good choices; one could wish that the lively section on Buddhist-inspired 'mock meat' dishes were at least twice as long. But meat-eaters who just want interesting flavours are equally in luck.
   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
dish in recorded history, it's pointless to grouse about the absence of particular recipes. But it's not unreasonable to wonder why anything as important as 'stinky tofu' (chou dou fu, the malodorous darling of several different Chinese bailiwicks) isn't at least discussed. And one could wish for more help in matching up names - in several different languages - with the things they're meant to apply to. It took me a while to grasp that the vague term 'tofu pudding' is supposed to translate Mandarin dou hua, a semi-coagulated curd that is to solid tofu as barely set junket is to the fromage blanc tribe. The skimpy index compounds the difficulty of sorting out such puzzles.
   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.


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