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It Takes a Tough Man to Make Tender Tofu

Stylish restaurants in the U.S. are making tofu every hour or shipping in rarefied kinds from Japan. Henry Alford tries to replicate the best at home.

Before I became so enamored of fresh tofu that I started making my own, I thought of this benighted food as a consolation prize for vegetarians. But then I ate at New York City's En Japanese Brasserie, where the cooks make fresh tofu five times a night at regularly scheduled and advertised times—it's like Shamu the killer whale, without all the splashing.

Seated at a table near the edge of the reflecting pool in the middle of En's chic and cavernous dining room, I was presented with an elegant, black lacquered box of just-made tofu. I used a wooden ladle to carefully scoop some of the tofu into a beautiful jade-colored bowl, then poured a generous amount of wari-joyu, the restaurant's slightly sweet mix of soy sauce and fish broth, over it. I took a bite, and bean curd as I heretofore had known it ceased to exist. The combination of the delicate flanlike texture and the slightly beany, almost creamy flavor was as consoling as custard. It was like being handed a sweater in a snowstorm. Suddenly, five times a night didn't seem nearly enough.

I'm not alone in my enthusiasm. Tofu, as they say in the fashion industry, is having a moment. If sushi is now ubiquitous in America, the next distinguishing characteristic of a high-end Asian restaurant may be its fresh tofu. What's particularly surprising about the new trendiness of a food first made by the Chinese more than 2,000 years ago is the glamour quotient. The $15-a-serving tofu at New York City's Megu is made by the revered Japanese artisan Yoshimasa Kawashima, who sends shipments encased in lovely bamboo baskets twice a week. The new Beverly Hills outpost of Umenohana, a Japanese chain of tofu restaurants, serves its yuba—made from the skin of warm soy milk—in a martini glass, topped with caviar.

Yet it was not glamour, but shape, that was my first consideration when I started making tofu. While some people use a colander lined with cheesecloth, thus yielding tofu that is domed, I avow that many of life's greatest pleasures come to us in the form of rectangular slabs—chocolate, cream cheese, packs of cigarettes. And so I turned to the Internet in search of a "settling box," a small wooden contraption with a removable bottom and holes for drainage. I found a kit complete with 10 packets of nigari (the seawater extract that is used as a thickener) for $48.95 from an Asheville, North Carolina, company called Natural Lifestyle.

Making tofu, I soon discovered, is not wildly dissimilar to making cheese. Using a recipe that came with my kit, I first soaked some dried soybeans overnight in water, then pureed them in a blender. I poured the batterlike puree into boiling water, cooked it for about 10 minutes and then strained it through a cotton cloth. Next, I thickened the resulting soy milk by adding nigari, which quickly caused the curds to separate from the whey. I ladled the curds into the cloth-lined box and weighted its moveable top to press the water out. The tofu firmed up in about 15 minutes.

What can be said of either godliness or mah-jongg can also be said of making tofu: It takes a minute to learn, a lifetime to master. While I found it fairly easy to produce something with the consistency of Cream of Wheat or ricotta cheese, it was very difficult to produce something flanlike—and, indeed, my first three efforts were mostly scrambled egg–like. But I soldiered on. My efforts suggested that, when it comes to texture, there are two crucial factors in the tofu-making process. Tofu gets firmer depending on how vigorously you stir in the nigari and how long and heavily you weight the lid.

A friend called me while I was consuming an early batch of too-soft tofu, and she gasped in amazement: "Artisanal tofu?!" She then opined that I should have a nickname redolent of honor and craftsmanship. I told her, "You may call me Small Batch."

At last I created tofu with a firmness I was pleased with. And yet, and yet...something seemed to be missing. Eager for inspiration, I headed back over to En. When I entered the restaurant and all the employees yelled hello at me in unison, it was the proud artisan within me who thought that surely this greeting was directed at Small Batch. I told my waiter, "I'm learning how to make tofu." His eyes widening slightly, he said, "Take notes." Some five minutes later, as I eagerly spooned tofu from my jade-colored bowl, I realized that, while my homemade tofu got good marks for taste and texture, it was a low-scorer in the third and possibly most important category. Heeding my waiter's directive to take notes, I took a pen out of my jacket pocket and wrote down one word on the back of an envelope. The word was presentation.

Back at home I rummaged through my cabinets and unearthed my best-looking piece of pottery—a brightly painted majolica saucer I'd bought in Italy: Yes, yes. I whipped up a batch of tofu and tried it out in this new vessel: Presentation City. Flush with success, I produced an extra-firm batch the next day, and steamed it and served it with sautéed shrimp in black bean sauce using a recipe from cookbook author Corinne Trang.

And now, I knew, it was time to raise the tofu stakes: Not only would I serve some of it to someone else, but I would serve it to someone else who was in a somewhat remote location. And so I found myself on the New York City subway, making the 45-minute-long trek to my boyfriend Greg's apartment in Brooklyn. Seated, I carefully held in front of me a covered Tupperware bowl containing a fresh slab submerged in water. Would the delicate foodstuff withstand the rigors of mass transportation? I tried to anticipate the train's lurchings by gently bouncing my hands, a human bedspring. When an eight-year-old boy and his mother seated to my right started staring at the bowl—I think they were hoping to see goldfish—I sheepishly told the mother, "It's tofu. I make my own tofu." Slightly confused, she asked, "To eat on the subway?" Conscious that others were listening, I nervously mumbled, "No, it's...it's indoor tofu."

Once, uh, indoors, I uncovered the lid. Product intact! Product glistening with goodness! Removing my majolica dish and supplies from my bag, I prepared an appetizer: tofu spooned onto rice crackers, drizzled with soy sauce and topped with slivers of pickled ginger. I then placed the snacks on the all-important dish.

When my efforts were pronounced "Delicious," I smiled. Small Batch is forever humbled.

En Japanese Brasserie, 435 Hudson St., New York City; 212-647-9196.

Henry Alford, the author of Municipal Bondage and Big Kiss, is a contributing editor to Travel + Leisure and Vanity Fair.

Published September 2005
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