Discovering Tofu

An often overlooked ingredient, tofu is much more than just a meat substitute and vegetarian staple

Tofu has been a part of our diet for over 2,000 years—this particular food can be traced back to the Han dynasty, the second imperial dynasty of China. Now a main ingredient in east Asian and south-east Asian cuisine, tofu is slowly (but surely) making its way onto western tables and restaurant menus. Also known as bean curd, tofu is, essentially, coagulated soymilk pressed into white blocks. Its production process is very similar to that of regular dairy cheese. In Asian cooking, tofu is eaten in varying ways depending on different regions and their customs. A popular Japanese dish commonly eaten during the summer months—hiyayakko—features tofu served with freshly grated ginger, green onions and soy sauce. In Chinese cuisine, douhua (also known as tofu pudding) is served with boiled peanuts, azuki beans, oatmeal, tapioca or a flavoured ginger or almond syrup. In the Philippines, on the other hand, tofu is mixed with brown sugar syrup and sago to make taho—a sweet delicacy. In Korea, tofu is also served as a popular bar food; dubu kimchi consists of boiled firm tofu served with freshly mixed kimchi, salted or fermented vegetables. Other very common cooking techniques in east and south-east Asia involve deep-frying tofu in vegetable or canola oil, smoking it and boiling it in coconut water. In stark contrast to this, western cuisine tends to use tofu as a substitute to other foods, matching the flavours and consistency of products like cheese, eggs and meats. This—along with the fact that the ingredient is a great source of non-animal protein—is why the food is so closely associated with vegetarianism and veganism. 

Use it in the kitchen

Anytime you wish to use tofu in your cooking, you’ll have to drain and press it in order to soak up excess liquid. This will help the tofu hold together when frying and make it easier for the ingredient to soak up any accompanying sauces. We recommend pressing it for 10 to 20 minutes. Place a block or heavy chopping board on top of the tofu and sit it in plenty of disposable paper towels to drain the unwanted liquid. Tofu is a great protein substitute for meat, but it’s not just for vegetarians. Often organic, the soy-based food is also suitable for vegans and for those who are simply trying to reduce the amount of animal products they consume. Thanks to its relatively bland flavour and the various consistencies it comes in—soft, firm or extra firm—tofu has the rare ability to work in perfect symphony with an impressively wide variety of foods and flavours—both sweet and savoury. Firm tofus are ideal for grilling, baking and stir-fries. Soft tofu, on the other hand, is great for sauces, shakes, desserts and dressings. Tofu is usually not eaten on its own—prepare it in a broth or alongside some vegetables, lean meat or fish. You will be able to find it in most supermarkets next to the vegan cheese and vegetarian meat substitutes—it is usually placed close to the fruit and vegetable department. 

Health benefits

From a nutritional perspective, tofu is an excellent food. It contains all eight essential amino acids, decreases the ‘bad’ low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and is a great source of protein and iron. It is also thought to provide protection against certain cancers and heart disease and has a relatively low calorie count. In addition to this, tofu is extremely easy to digest as the fibre is removed during the manufacturing process.

Storing tofu

Tofu can be bought in bulk, small packages or in sealed containers. Once a packet is opened, rinse the tofu, cover it with water and keep it refrigerated. In order to keep the tofu fresh (it’s advisable to consume an open package in under a week), change the water often. If kept in the original unopened package, it can be frozen for up to five months. Note: freezing tofu may slightly alter its consistency. •

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