…especially if it’s just a wee bit fried.
I cooked, served and devoured a lot of meat in 2021. Red meat, white meat, the other white meat and all things piscine. My pandemic food porn page confesses it all – there was neither moderation nor discretion in this girl’s kitchen. And I regret nothing. That said, for the last few months I’ve quietly introduced a meatless night every week. I know it’s trendy and probably politically polarizing, because what isn’t these days? (Think genetically altered soy beans or cow-toot-generated methane gases.) Still, variety is the spice…blah, blah, blah. So tofu.
We like it chilled and soaked in soy sauce or ponzu, mixed in Chinese dishes like Mapo Tofu or fried to a cubic crispness, which is my focus here.
My first memories of tofu are from the late ‘70s when the Savannah Food Co-op opened on the corner of Barnard and Jones. It replaced the neighborhood bodega where my gang of local street urchins gathered, smacking Now & Laters under the Spanish moss, nearly oblivious to the beauty and history around us. Downtown Savannah was an enclave of privileged hippieness and happiness in those days – I was raised on garden hose water, Bob Dylan vinyl and full-fat kefir from the Food Co-op. The tofu was stored suspended in its water bath between the sprouts and the tempeh; it was the latest mystical wonderfood but we were all more than a little suspicious. Mother never really knew what to do with tofu, but she was a willing patron and played along. That was until they asked her to sign up for her mandatory co-op volunteer hours and pseudo-socialism hit the brick wall. I think I spent a few afternoon sweeping the co-op in her stead and we were allowed to retain our membership.
“I don’t care if you analyze me, categorize me or hypnotize me. I don’t care if you feel like me, see like me or be like me.” ~ Bob Dylan
Tofu became an actual food for me in ‘85 when I spent the summer as an exchange student in Yokohama, Japan – it showed up daily on the Suzuki’s table in every form imaginable. They, like most Japanese, were amazed that I would even taste it, let alone eat it using hashi (chopsticks) with grace and accuracy. “You know tofu?” they asked, legitimately stunned. Americans in general were not known as adventurous eaters, which I supposed was fair at the time. Still, I found the stereotype a little ironic since historically Japan was a rigidly closed society until the 1850s. Okay, so it took Savannah a little longer, but at least I knew my tofu.
It was not a staple in the college dining halls and still less-than-popular during my years in NYC. But when I returned to Nara, Japan in 1992 for a year of teaching English, cold tofu with a citrus-soy sauce, ginger, green onions and bonito shavings became a favorite weeknight staple. Back in the States in the late 1990s I often would hunt down the ingredients in a fit of nostalgia, or convince a restaurant that yes, I understand what hiyakko is and yes, I’d like to order it and yes, I’m speaking in Japanese to do it.
These days tofu is more of a staple in American grocery stores, with a much wider selection of recipes to play with. Personally, I crave a warm crunch with a forthright sauce, but instead of sneaking a serving for one I have to buy “the big block” to satisfy a house full of hungry food adventurers. Of all the international foods I tried to introduce to the boys, I have to admit that tofu is the one thing I never imagined they would go for. But they did.
So there really is no mystery in how to do this – dry the tofu, cube the tofu, coat the tofu and then fry the tofu. The fun part is your next move. While the recipe I use does give a yummy sauce that is sweet and decadently sticky, I’d really concentrate on the frying technique. Once I felt comfy frying with some skill and flair, I started searching for more exotic flavor variations beyond the sweet sesame. Then there was a moment last summer when I went fully off-script. I conjured up the hubris to deviate from culinary “authority,” combine a few recipes and wing it. Well partly. I’m really more of a savvy scavenger than a pure creator – I always have at least two recipes handy in case I need to run back to the safety of home base…and swig a little of that garden hose water.
The challenge here is to put on some Dylan and take a leap – whether it’s to finally try tofu, to go meatless for a meal or to fry with reckless abandon using 18-inch chopsticks. Pick your poison people.
- Firm, soft, silken? It matters so follow the recipe, ie Crispy = firm and Mapo = silken
- Tofu lives in water so it should be stored accordingly.
- But…firm tofu for frying loves to be wrung out. Wrap in kitchen towel and apply a weight (cookbook book or heavy pan) for about 20 minutes prior to frying.
- I tend to go heavy on the cornstarch because I like a meaningful crunch.
- I’ve used vegetable, peanut and avocado oils, but never olive oil. Since your heat should never be too high, you can go for flavor and worry less about smoke point.
- I find myself regulating between medium and medium-high based on the sear of each cube surface. Start with the recipe recommendation but be attentive to the browning.
- I have had more success with a non-stick pan than not, but you know, risk/reward.
- Long chopsticks are useful for flipping with precision and style. I’ve scalded myself enough to pass on this wisdom.