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Ingredient Mon Feb 04 2008

Searching for Tofu Nirvana

Fried tofu with pork and black bean sauce. Spicy lime and herbed tofu in lettuce cups. Wheat-berry salad with grilled tofu. Those are just some of the tofu recipes on Epicurious, and are probably quite typical of American culinary relationship with the now-ubiquitous ex-exotica. Most often, Tofu in America is fried in oil, marinated in vinaigrette, spiced up with garlic and chili, and enveloped in thick dressing. There’s even a whole line of tofu pre-flavored in the pouch. As one reviewer on Epicurious aptly put it, the consensus is that a “plain tofu [...] would make [us] fall asleep on the kitchen table." To prevent that boring substance from putting us to sleep, the logic follows, we have to spice it up.

This doesn't have to be so. A good tofu can be a delight in itself, without all the spices, oil and marinade. Die-hard tofu eaters know that subtle but full flavor of soy--and the pleasingly creamy texture that accompanies it--is nothing but boring.

American tofu-eating seems hampered by two factors: one historical, the other commercial. Tofu was discovered in the West, around the mid-20th century, by the vegetarian community as a protein-rich substitute for meat. As such, initial impulse must have been to force the tofu into (perhaps reluctant) meat-like existence. All the marinating and frying were methods to add flavors and create textures similar to those of dearly missed meat. Which would have been fine, if this meatification of tofu hadn’t pushed all other arts of tofu nirvana out of the American culinary dictionary. Simple preparations like hiya-yakko (Japanese chilled tofu with a dash of soy sauce and scallions) has been pretty much confined to the menus of restaurants catering to mainly “ethnic” and "ethnovore" clientele.

It’s not all a matter of preconception, however. As I said earlier, to enjoy tofu’s own flavor and texture,we need a good and fresh tofu; and this, unfortunately, is hard to find. I don’t know if it’s the quality of the ingredient, superior technique or plain freshness, but the flavor of a good tofu is devastatingly superior to that of a mediocre one. When I was growing up in Japan, we used to get fresh tofu from a local tofu maker. My mom bought the stuff from the tofu guy himself, when he drove by in his little vending truck. This didn’t happen very often, and when it did happen, the tofu made its way to our dinner table in less than 24 hours since it’d been made. Even as a child, I could see the difference; the local tofu’s flavor was rich, earthy and rounded, whereas the mass-market tofu from supermarkets was bland and mushy in comparison. This sort of locally-made, super-fresh tofu is becoming a rare commodity even in Japan, and it is no easy task to find one here, either. No wonder most American tofu recipes call for spices, marinades and dressings.

But wait a minute. This is Chicago, a city with a significant East Asian population. There’s got to be some local tofu maker with fresh, made-this-morning blocks of tofu bobbing happily in crisp-cold water (which is how tofu is cooled traditionally). And there are. In fact, quite a few of the tofu products sold in local ethnic markets are made right in the city, by small manufacturers scattered around Chinatown and along Broadway near Argyle. And one market in particular has ventured to make their own, right on the premise.

H Mart is a gigantic supermarket in the northwestern suburb of Niles. Although it caters to many (mainly Asian) ethnicities, its base clientele is Korean. The market is a proof of Korean love of tofu; the market boasts a huge selection of pre-packaged tofu products in the produce section. But that's not where you should go for the freshest. The tofu-making facility is tucked way back, past the fish counter and the meat section. Behind a large glass window, men in white lab coats operate shiny, giant tofu-making machine and scoop out big blocks of firm tofu from the large pool of cold water. Each piece is placed in a plastic container filled with fresh water, and is sold immediately just outside the facility--talk about freshness. Beside the plain firm tofu, the sterile-looking facility cranks out greenish "vegetable tofu" and super-soft tofu made directly in plastic tubs. The tofu is extremely fresh and rich in flavor, and is no doubt the closest I've had in the U.S. to those locally made ones from my childhood.

It's a long drive for sure, but for the melt-in-your-mouth creaminess of the extra soft tofu in my miso soup, and the robust flavor of the firm ones that doesn't get obliterated by the spicy sauce of Ma Po Tofu, I really don't mind it. (Plus H Mart has an excellent selection of fresh produce and seafood.) Even after the long drive on a gray winter day, H Mart's fresh tofu is never dull and lethargic.

In my opinion, tofu's as good as these are best prepared simply. Scoop extra-soft ones in your miso soup with scallions, or dress chilled firm tofu with grated ginger and a dash of soy sauce. You'll be surprised how much flavor tofu can have--I hope.

 
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Naz Hamid / February 5, 2008 11:30 AM

I certainly agree! My own teenage years were accustomed to super soft silken tofu as dessert, dressed up simply as is in a sweet clear warm sauce/broth.

Another spot in the city where I'm fond of picking up fresh but pre-packed tofu is at Broadway Market at Broadway and Lawrence tucked away in the corner of the strip mall there. They cater to vegetarians with an excellent frozen mock meat section as well as a section for just tofu and seitan. The light puffy pre-fried tofu triangles and squares (a little over a dollar) would make an excellent appetizer stuffed with slivered cucumbers and peanut sauce for any asian themed dinner.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
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