The Soy Sensation: Cookbook Author Andrea Nguyen on the Rise of Tofu

Tofu's reputation has come a long ways since it was first heralded by the Berkeley granola generation as the earth-friendly, animal saving, meat substitute. Back then it was often bland, poorly produced, uninspired, and forced upon a rather unwilling nation not as tofu -- a grand ingredient worthy of its own merit -- but as simply a not-meat filler.

Today, however, tofu has a firm base of people who are all about the soy sensation. This has been brought about by many factors. The spread of more artisan tofu makers throughout North America due to increasing ever-expanding Hmong, Vietnamese, Chinese and other Asian communities in city and suburban areas; and the lifting of immigration limits contributed significantly. In addition, the widespread embracement and exposure of new, more authentic styles of Asian cuisine and restaurants have given eaters new chances to experience tofu's many forms from pressed to pudding, soft to fermented.

With tofu finding itself in the midst of a culinary renaissance where college students now chat about the best Sichuan-style tofu in town and Middle American moms now proudly sautéing tofu with veggies for their families it's a welcoming time for Andrea Nguyen's new tofu focused book, Asian Tofu, to debut.

Nguyen, a food writer and cookbook author whose previous book, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, broke ground by introducing the foodie public to cooking authentic Vietnamese cuisine has forayed deep into the world of tofu to present a multinational history, approach, and outlook on tofu.

Nguyen presents tofu recipes through a dazzling array of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and other cuisines that are approachable and easy for the home cook. Recipes such as tea-smoked tofu with peppers and pork, pressed tofu and peanuts in spicy bean-sauce, and tofu blancmange all entice the reader to pursue this soy bean concoction and tinker with it at home. I found the silken tofu and edamame soup to be resounding with a green, fresh flavor that haunted me throughout the next day, the desire only quelled by making a second batch.

For the truly adventurous she also presents a chapter on how to make your own tofu from silken to firm, and even how to press and smoke it.

Yet, I still had a few questions about tofu and desired to pick Andrea's brain a bit more on her opinions about tofu and its place in Modern America. What follows is our simple discussion over e-mail that hopefully brings thing more to light on this coagulated conundrum, followed by a recipe from Asian Tofu:

Tofu started with quite a bad rap back in the 1970's and some of that negative stereotype of it as a bland, tasteless food still persists. Why do you think that is?

Poor tofu. It suffered from a bad marketing plan. It's an Asian ingredient that was cloaked in western guises and popularized in the States as a vegetarian meat substitute. Tofu scramble or tofu spaghetti anyone? Lean dishes like those resulted in people stereotyping tofu as a hippie food. There was a certain proselytizing tone as people framed it as healthy and ecological. But that about its deliciousness? There was little talk about its tasty potential. No wonder people threw up barriers and became resistant.

In reality, Asian cooks deep-fry and panfry tofu. They may enjoy it with or without meat, season it with salt and chilies for intense flavors, and combine it with dairy for richness. It's a staple ingredient that's often purchased fresh from a neighborhood shop or vendor, like bread from a local bakery. The 1970s framing of tofu fostered a lot of misunderstanding about its identity and possibilities. Asian ways with tofu weren't part of the discussion, despite the fact that Asian people had been cooking with tofu for eons.

You state that, "Asian Tofu doesn't aim to convert, but rather to present tofu traditions as they exist and as they continue to deliciously develop." Why did you feel that this was the right approach for this book?

Tofu is an ancient food and some of the dishes that remain popular today, for example Japanese chilled tofu (hiya yakko) go back hundreds of years. On the other hand, Asian people have embraced tofu tiramisu and tofu ice cream. I like to encourage readers and cooks to explore old school foods as well as new riffs so they have a broad understanding of how to cook with tofu. Then they can confidently do their own thing.

As for the pan-Asian, trans-Pacific approach, that's to help people connect food traditions across borders. Tofu originated in China and spread elsewhere. Having a sense of its roots allow you to follow its story.

Did you face any uphill battle with some friends or testers when you told them you wanted to write a book on tofu?

There were friends who thought that a tofu cookbook was a bad idea. I temporarily stopped talking to them. (Just kidding.) My volunteer testers were all curious about tofu. Some wanted to make their own and others didn't. One had a spouse who hated tofu. I select recipe testers who can contribute different viewpoints so I can make a better book. I converted the tofu hater with the tofu steak burger recipe, which includes bacon and cheese.

You introduce readers to many of the people you met on your journey to explore tofu. Why do you feel these stories are so pertinent to understanding tofu?

I wanted to convey that tofu is vital to many people for all sorts of reasons. Once I started looking for tofu and talking to people, I not only saw it everywhere but also began collecting personal stories about it. Family legacy, religion, artisanal craftsmanship, home cooking and community - you can discuss those things vis a vis tofu. I wanted to report on my experiences and inspire readers to initiate their own.

What ways do you encourage tofu newbies (tofubies?) such as die-hard meat eaters and children to try out tofu?

If you don't grow up with tofu, it may look like space alien food to you. The Chinese have described tofu as "the meat without bones", and indeed, like all proteins, it is relatively bland to start out with. We have to figure out how to season, cook, manipulate it to delectability. The [tofu] burger recipe is great to start out with because you can have it your way. For kids who enjoy sweets, the chocolate chip and ginger okara (soy milk lees) cookies are great. I saw a toddler eat 4 or 5 of them at a book talk the other day. The Indian cashew and cardamom fudge is easy and keeps well in the fridge or freezer. It's not terribly sweet and the grated tofu adds protein.

What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of crafting this cookbook?

This book covers a lot things -- DIY techniques, traditional and modern recipes, personal interviews and stories, studio and location photography. The question became how to fit all of it in a balanced manner into 232 pages. You need white space for good book design. I overwrite with the expectation that I'll have to cut or move things around in the design phase.
We also released the book simultaneously as a hardcover, regular ebook, and enhanced ebook. That was a first for my publisher, Ten Speed Press. The enhanced edition is where we added instructional videos and travelogues, which we hustled to produce in a couple of months after we sent the hardcover to print.

What do you see tofu's future to be in modern at home cooking and restaurant culture?

More people are digging tofu as part of their diet these days for lots of reasons. You can easily buy it at supermarkets and specialty markets. There's also a greater desire to eat less meat and greater awareness about authentic Asian flavors. Fine dining chefs such as David Kinch, who've been to Japan and examined its foodways, recognize the importance and potential of tofu at the Asian table. We spent an afternoon in my home kitchen sampling different tofu dishes from the book and discussing the merits of soybeans and coagulants. Casual places like the Yard House and Wahoo's Fish Taco offer tofu dishes on their menu. Tofu's future is looking bright.

Anything else you want to add?

This is not my mother's or your mother's tofu cookbook. It's for all of us.

Simmered Greens with Fried Tofu Saag Soy Paneer
Serves 4 with 2 or 3 other dishes

12 ounces firm or extra-firm tofu
11/2 teaspoons salt
2 cups very hot or just-boiled water, plus more as needed
Chubby 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 yellow onion, coarsely chopped
8 ounces mustard greens, or 6 ounces braising mix
1 pound spinach (2 small or 1 large bunch)
1/4 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon cumin seed
2 or 3 green Thai or serrano chiles, finely chopped (seeded for less heat)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, optional

1. Cut the tofu into 3/4-inch cubes, then put them in a bowl. Dissolve 1 teaspoon of the salt in the 2 cups of hot water. Pour over the tofu; it should be just covered. Set aside for 15 minutes to season. Pour the water off, then transfer the tofu cubes to a non-terry dishtowel or double layer of paper towels placed atop a plate. Set aside to drain.

2. Put the ginger, garlic, and onion in a food processor. Run the machine to yield a finely chopped texture, occasionally pausing to scrape down the sides. Transfer to a bowl and set aside. Reassemble the food processor (you don't have to wash it) for finely chopping the greens later.

3. Rinse the mustard greens well, then coarsely chop, discarding the thick ribs. (If you are using braising mix, rinse, then coarsely chop the entire leaf because the ribs are tender.) Transfer to a 5- or 6-quart pot. Discard any root ends from the spinach, then rinse well. Coarsely chop the leaves and stems, then add to the pot of greens. To facilitate cooking, splash in a little water.

Cover and cook over high heat for 5 to 7 minutes, until the greens have wilted and just cooked through. They will turn bright green and collapse to one-fourth to one-third of their original volume. To ensure even cooking, occasionally uncover the pot, stir, then replace the lid. When done, set aside to cool for 5 minutes.

4. Transfer the greens to the food processor, discarding the residual liquid. Process to a rough yet finely chopped texture. Add 1/2 cup water (room temperature is fine) and pulse to blend together. Set aside.

5. Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over high heat. Blot the tofu cubes dry, then panfry them in two batches for about 5 minutes, until light golden on 3 or 4 of the sides. Turn the tofu with chopsticks or a spatula during the frying. If the tofu violently sputters and spits, lower the heat slightly. Your aim is to add a bit of character and depth to the tofu, not crisp it all over -- it will be soft or crisp in places. Transfer to a plate, leaving the oil behind, and set aside.

6. Adjust the heat to medium-high, then add the mixture of ginger, garlic, and onion. Cook, stirring frequently, for about 8 minutes, until the mixture has browned and begun to caramelize. Add the cumin and chile and continue cooking for 1 to 2 minutes more, until the mixture is highly aromatic and richly browned.

Lower the heat to medium, return the tofu to the skillet, 
and stir to combine well. Add the greens, stirring to combine. Add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and cayenne. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, moving the mixture frequently, until heated through. The greens will slightly darken.
Let the mixture sit for a few minutes to meld the flavors. Taste and add salt or cayenne as needed. Stir in the butter, transfer to a communal bowl or individual plates, and serve.

The greens and the tofu can be prepared several hours in advance. Let them cool, then cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature, if you'll be finishing the dish within 2 hours. Otherwise, refrigerate and return to room temperature before continuing with step 5. Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 3 days and reheated with a bit of water.