What Does Tofu Taste Like? A Complete Guide To The “Tofu Culture” In East And Southeast Asia
‘What does tofu taste like?’ has been a rising question among gourmets. Being known as a rich source of vegan proteins, this plant-based food is getting more and more popular in the Western world, but it has long been a staple in cuisines across Asia for centuries.
Even if you are a tofu-virgin, perhaps you have seen this plain beige-colored block in the local grocery store at least once. However, having traveled to East and Southern Asian countries, I’d say it’s much more than that: Tofu appears on the dinner table almost every night, in a variety of preparations. It can be soft and jiggly, chewy, smoked, fried, or even airy in texture, and can be seasoned in countless ways, from spicy to sweet. I couldn’t even recall all the delicious tofu dishes I tasted, and during my trips, I was always eager to try the next recipe.
So, in case you don’t know what does tofu taste like, let me introduce you to the wonders of this food in Asian cuisine. And, for those of you who are familiar with it, now is the time to fall in love with tofu all over again!
The Legend Of Tofu
One could be forgiven for thinking that vegan meat is a Western invention. This assumption, however, is incorrect: Tofu can be considered the first plant-based meat, and it was discovered by the ancient Chinese about 2000 years ago.
How exactly tofu came to the world is still debatable, but there are several mythologies about it. Funny enough, according to the most popular legend, tofu was developed by accident: A Chinese cook theoretically added the compound Nagari to a batch of cooked soybeans. Low and behold, the tofu was born! Until today, you can still find Nagari in the making of this food.
Of course, that’s not the only tale. Another example, which is also my favorite, is about a man who loved his parents dearly, but as they grew old their teeth became weaker and worn. Since they could only eat soft food, the man tried to blend some soybeans and cooked them like a soup.
When the man’s parents tried the soybean soup, they couldn’t stand the taste, so he experimented with countless recipes to come up with something his parents could enjoy. After many trials and errors, he noticed that if he added some salt into the soup and left it to cool down, the dish would become jelly-like.
Out of curiosity, the man took a bite and was completely blown away by the taste and texture. He served some of this “soybean jelly” to his parents, they loved it and this is how tofu was invented.
How Is Tofu Made?
While we still don’t know exactly how tofu came about, those myths do give us a glimpse at the making of tofu.
Just like most folks out there, I didn’t think about DIYing my tofu. Instead, I took some from the grocery store. At some points, though, I began to wonder how this mysterious substance is produced and my curiosity got the better of me: I signed up for a making-tofu-from-scratch class. Here’s a very short explanation of what we did and how tofu is made:
Basically, you begin by soaking soybeans in water. Once the beans are fully rehydrated, you will then blend them with even more water. A blender is often required to make them as smooth as possible. The result would be a milkshake-like liquid, often known as soy milk.
The next step is to sieve out the pulp. Since the curd is made solely from liquid parts, you need a sieve and cheesecloth to separate the pure soy milk and pulp bits. Be very careful, though: This is when things can get a bit messy. Also, you might want to keep the pulp/tofu dregs (A.K.A doufuzha 豆腐渣 in Chinese). It can be used to make a tasty vegan burger patty or ‘meat’ ball.
Then, you will find yourself magically turning the milk into tofu by using spoonfuls, vinegar, or even lemon juice. These serve as a coagulant to make the milk clump together. Different types of tofu (which we will dive into in a minute!) are created by adjusting parts of this process. For instance, adding more coagulant will make larger curds which will then make firmer tofu.
In the last step, you will spoon the tofu-like substance into a wooden basket and place a cloth and something heavy on top. This presses your tofu together and the excess water will leak out of the bottom of the basket. Voilà, you have a basket full of fresh bean curd!
How to make tofu at home
For a long time, tofu has been known as a rich source of lean protein. Some people even wonder ‘Is tofu healthier than chicken?’. While chicken contains more protein, tofu is free of saturated fat and cholesterol, making it a good diet choice.
Different Types Of Tofu
What does tofu taste like also depends on the type of it, and trust me when I say, you will be surprised at the varieties? If you are new to tofu, it can be overwhelming. To make it easier for you, I will break them down into 5 types based on firmness.
Soft Silken Tofu
If you make tofu without the curds forming step, the final result will be silken tofu. Silken tofu (also known as Japanese-style tofu) is smooth and creamy, without any lumps or bumps. Since it is very fragile, this kind of tofu must be handled delicately and is the most challenging to deal with. Thanks to its texture, silken tofu often serves as a thickening agent in soups and sauces.
You can tell from its name that soft silken tofu is extremely soft since it contains a very high water content. Because of this, it won’t remain in shape when cooking but can blend into just about anything well. For that reason, this type of tofu is often used in sauces, smoothies, desserts, or baking.
Firm or Extra Firm Silken Tofu
Another type of silken tofu is firm or extra firm. Of course, its texture is slightly slimmer than soft silken tofu and can withstand some light cooking. Firm silken tofu makes a perfect topping in soups. You can also batter and fry quickly for a tasty snack or side dish. An interesting fact is both soft silken tofu and firm silken tofu cannot be pressed with a traditional tofu press at home.
Soft Block Tofu
For folks from other parts of the world, especially Westerners, block tofu is more well-known. As the previous part mentions, it is created by pressing the soy milk curds into a block shape, which can then be chopped or sliced for cooking. In the store, you can find block tofu packaged in plastic trays.
Soft block tofu is extremely popular in Cantonese and other southern Chinese cuisines. Its texture resembles firmly set gelatin, so it is wonderful in sweet dishes.
At the same time, soft block tofu also soaks up sauces and flavors, making it ideal to pair with spices and ingredients. You can use it in Sichuan’s popular dish Mapo tofu, or Hunan’s Duo Jiao Yu (steamed fish with salted chilies and tofu). The soft steamed tofu pairs nicely with the fish, soaking up the sauce nicely and complementing the soft fish.
Firm Block Tofu
There is a reason firm block tofu is one of the most common kinds of tofu and the one that you probably see most often in supermarkets. This is the most versatile kind and can hold up to most cooking methods. You may pan fry it as a side dish, use it as a meat alternative in stir-fries, or add it into soups and braised recipes. Since its texture is comparable to feta cheese, Westerners who are new to tofu should try this one first before other kinds.
Some dishes will work with both normal/firm and soft tofu, but others will require firm tofu since it is easier to handle. A good example is Hakka Style Stuffed Tofu where the firm tofu works best.
Extra Firm Block Tofu
This tofu is, as its name implies, is the firmest and heartiest of the block tofu varieties. The curds have been squeezed tightly together, so the final result is chewy and dense. If you’d like to make crispy, fried tofu, or for any dish that requires a hearty bite, extra firm tofu is the way to go. Another interesting fact for you is, the firmer the tofu, the higher it will be in both protein and fat content!
What Does Tofu Taste Like? Popular Tofu Dishes Around Asia
Sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami are the five basic taste senses on our tongues. So, what does tofu taste like exactly?
If someone tells you that tofu is tasteless, well, this is somewhat true. Or, to put it another way, tofu can taste like almost anything. It actually takes in the flavors around it. You might sense a mild sweetness with a touch of nuttiness, and that’s it.
To me, tofu is like a white canvas waiting to be painted. So, when you are in the kitchen with tofu, consider yourself an artist. Can you eat tofu raw? Yes, you can, but I wouldn’t eat it without some sort of flavoring.
Since this food is associated with Asian cuisine, let’s take a look at how Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indonesian add flavors to tofu to create exquisite culinary artworks from it.
Many kids from Sichuan, China grow up on the sweet-and-salty, heavy-on-the-beef version of Mapo tofu that their moms cook. A traditional Sichuan dish, Mapo tofu consists of simmered medium-firm silken tofu, fermented bean paste, beef, plenty of red-hot roasted chili oil, and, of course, a handful of Sichuan peppercorns.
Authentic Mapo tofu
When prepared right, the dish will be coated with hot chili oil covering its surface, keeping the contents underneath hot in both senses of the word. It embraces the true meaning of “Málà” – “a spicy and numbing flavor.
Mapo tofu is not for everyone. Once you get over the spiciness, though, be careful since the dish is truly addictive! Just when your mouth is about to combust from the heat, the Sichuan peppers will numb it back to soothing calmness, allowing you to take another bite and repeat the entire process again and again.
Inari sushi (稲荷寿司, いなり寿司), or Inarizushi, consists of sushi rice that’s stuffed within seasoned deep-fried tofu pockets called Inari age. To prepare the tofu pocket, you have to cook them in dashi-based broth. After the tofu pockets have absorbed all the flavor, they will be squeezed dry so sushi rice can be put into them.
Thanks to their sweet-savory taste and toothsome bite, these small golden pockets are the perfect choice for any occasion, whether outside picnic or quick lunch. Bento boxes often include Inari sushi, and you can easily find it in the deli alongside other sushi rolls.
What’s your favorite way to use up aging kimchi? Dubu kimchi (두부김치) is one of many classic Korean dishes that use sour, old kimchi. The kimchi is stir-fried with fatty pork and served with sliced tofu.
In Korean cooking, kimchi and pork make a classic combination that is used in many different dishes, such as kimchi jjigae. The taste is intoxicating, with the pungency of kimchi, the rich flavor of fatty pork, and the soft, pleasing texture of tofu.
Street food is a common sight in Indonesian culture, and while it may sound strange to foreigners, they have quite a variety of tofu-based street food snacks or light meals. One of the most tofu-based dishes is Tahu Gejrot – fried tofu cut into small cubes and doused with a spicy chili soy sauce.
Making of Tahu Gejrot
While the crispy tofu puffs are the main ingredient, the sauce is the real MVP of the dish. Made of shallots, garlic, green cayenne pepper, brown sugar, sweet soy sauce, and tamarind, it is a wonderful combination of sweet, spicy, and sour. This dish also happens to be gluten-free and vegan-friendly, so anyone can give it a try.
“Tofu, Tofu, Mouthful Of ‘Fu’”
In case you find yourself asking ‘What does tofu taste like?’, that’s what you are looking for. However, the Chinese people might have another way to answer this question. Since the Chinese pronunciation for tofu sounds similar to “luck for all”, there is a popular saying that says “Tofu, Tofu, mouthful of ‘Fu'”. To them, tofu tastes like happiness and comfort. More than food, it reflects their whole culture.
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