Tofu has had the absolute worst PR plan in the history of food products. The name itself — the literal take from the Japanese language, also known as doufu in Chinese — doesn’t conjure drool-worthy sensations compared to other proteins. For a meat eater, when you think of things like pork belly or lamb chops you get these beautiful cuts of fatty, slightly reddish, pink-marbled meat. Tofu — or even worse, bean curd — on the other hand is kind of alien-like in how its uniformly white, square and jiggly when softly touched.
Tofu also got pushed in the wrong door during the 1960s and ’70s in America as the signature meat substitute dish that health-conscious cooks tried to pass in a dazzling array of recipes that attempted to replicate and replace American favorites. There was no way that tofu was ever going to look sexy when things like tofurkey or tofu lasagna were where it got used.
The reality of tofu from an Eastern hemisphere perspective is that it never was a meat substitute for most Asian countries. It was just food. Cooking with it is about not figuring out the healthiest application of the dish, but rather the best way to enjoy it.
Tofu is, in fact, often combined with meat in Asian cultures. The secret to why tofu can be so delicious is that it is a big sponge for flavor. The tofu soaks in all of the sauce and meat drippings to become this incredibly delicious, savory entity. The classic Chinese dish, mapo tofu, is a famous example of this pairing, combining ground meat and tofu together in a spicy broth. The tofu not only soaks in all of the flavors, but also acts to cut the heat and fat at the same time, bringing balance to what would otherwise be a very heavy dish.
Tofu is also texture. Yes, it can be soft and creamy, as it is when taken out of a package and quickly cooked, but when taken to different temperatures it can range from airy and chewy, to crispy and dense like a chicken nugget. The variance allows for endless possibilities, whether used standalone or paired with another protein to get the flavor and texture you want.
Locally, there are fortunately a lot of ways to dive into tofu.
For those who have never really leapt into the world of tofu before, there’s always the classic fry-the-hell-out-of-it strategy, which JJ’s Tea House (601 Main St. Suite. D) offers beautifully. The tofu here is lightly battered and fried before being placed over ground pork and white rice with a couple of vegetable sides. A light, sweet soy sauce helps bridge the rice, tofu and pork into a happy marriage. This is a good example of how tofu pairs so well with meat — the tofu bringing the golden, crispy texture, while the ground pork brings the savory edge.
For a more tofu-oriented dish, Baan Sawan (2135 Devine St.) and their thick, creamy red Thai curry serves as the perfect foil for fried tofu to exist in. The richness of the coconut curry and its spices are standout. The tofu is not here to be a star, but rather the supporting actor that helps the curry shine, adding pleasantly soft, slightly chewy bites to the dish. The best part about tofu when it is fried like at Baan Sawan is that it inherits just a touch of nuttiness, which really goes perfectly with the different Thai flavor profiles.
Sakura Japanese Restaurant (4430 Rosewood Dr.) features one of the most complicated tofu dishes in town, and also one of the most fun. The agedashi tofu is a Japanese classic, featuring large, rectangular tofu pieces coated in either corn or potato starch and fried until golden brown. Though deeply crispy on the outside, because the tofu piece is so large, the inside remains a little soft and creamy. The tofu is then gently settled into warm dashi broth seasoned with mirin and soy sauce. The tofu’s lower half soaks and saturates in the broth, creating this soft bottom and crispy top. Bonito flakes top the tofu and start fluttering from the residual heat of the dish, making for a dramatic effect when it arrives at the table. This is a dish that celebrates everything that can be delicious about tofu, from the way it soaks and absorbs flavor to how it can be delicious texturally in multiple ways at once.
The final way tofu can often be enjoyed is in stews, where it has time to absorb deep broth flavors. Kimchi Korean Restaurant (1807 Decker Blvd.) offers a solid version of kimchi jigae, a Korean stew that gets its full-bodied flavor from pork and depth from the spicy fermented Korean cabbage. The tofu in this simmers steadily until it develops a soft, custard-like consistency that feels fantastically comforting over rice when spooned together with the fragrant broth.