Culinary Chameleon

There's a silky textured ingredient commonly used in Asian cuisine that unfortunately is
overlooked. It never wins the culinary Oscar for Best or even Supporting Actor and is
usually simply found in the credits after the movie (or dish) is finished. Full of protein,
healthier polyunsaturated fats but with enough bulk to "beef" up dishes and the ability
to enhance role players that shine in their supporting roles, this point guard of the
culinary world deserves its due... What is it? TOFU!

The Science of Tofu

Most of us know the basics of the science of tofu. Basically curdled soy milk right? That
would be accurate if you also feel that the Sistine Chapel simply has a painting on its
roof or the Pyramids of Giza are simply a pointy stack of bricks.
All tofu starts life as soybeans with the majority of various styles of tofu starting life as
dried soybeans. There are tofu that are produced from fresh soybeans but most of what's
available to the average consumer comes from the dried variety. The dried soybeans are
usually soaked for a half to a full day then ground and the resulting soymilk is then
boiled, strained and coagulated to produce your basic tofu. Depending on the coagulant
used and the pressing technique employed, the final product can be as silky as soft silken
tofu all the way up to extra firm block tofu. Most of the labor involved occurs in the
production of soymilk as the softened soybeans need to be ground to extract their liquid
or soymilk. Therefore if you find yourself involved in tofu production, volunteer for the
latter half or better yet, choose that final phase of production - quality control.

For most Japanese style tofu, the coagulant of choice (or nigari) is either magnesium or
calcium chloride - it originally was produced by concentrating desalinated seawater.
Chinese style tofu usually employs calcium sulfate while silken tofu often is produced
from acid coagulants like glucono-delta lactone. I know that this is beginning to sound
like a chemistry class but for all intents and purposes, cooking really is chemistry. We just
use culinary terms to describe basic chemical reactions. Browning or toasting in cooking
equals the Maillard reaction or a heat induced reaction between an amino acid and a
reducing sugar in chemistry. Whipped cream in culinary speak, a lipid and air colloid in
chemical speak. Tofu for the culinary inclined, a magnesium or calcium precipitated soy
protein solid for the chemically inclined... and dinner for the Gochiso Gourmet.

Tofu Nutrition

Since tofu is produced from beans, it's no wonder that it is a good source of vegetarian
protein providing roughly 10gm of protein per 4 ounce serving. This protein also includes
a hefty dose(up to 44% of the daily requirement) of the essential amino acid tryptophan.
Tofu also is a good source of magnesium, calcium, manganese, iron, copper, selenium and
Tofu also contains the isoflavones genistein and daidzein and though the jury is still not
out whether these compounds can help alleviate the symptoms of menopause or reduce
breast cancer risk, preliminary small trials show a possible benefit and at the very least, no
risk of harm.
There are also small trials that show that a diet supplemented with soy protein can reduce
LDL cholesterol or "bad cholesterol" as much as a 20mg dose of the statin medication
lovastatin when added to a diet also high in fiber.

Variations on a Common Theme

I know that simplest form of tofu - the fresh block of tofu - seems the same to everyone
but nothing could be farther from the truth. For starters, actual freshly made tofu is
leagues apart from the variety found in supermarkets. Freshly made tofu has a creamier
consistency and a sweeter flavor and is worthy of being the centerpiece of the meal. Of
course that flavor comes with a price. Since tofu doesn't have a very long shelf life, you'd
have to wake up early EVERY morning to soak and grind beans, extract milk then
coagulate the proteins. In that sense, me thinks the supermarket variety is fine. Of course
that still leaves the decision of soft, medium, firm or extra firm, fried or deep fried,
flavored or pre-cooked. WHEW! And that doesn't even include fermented red and yellow
tofu for jai or yuba and okara that are by-products in tofu production... but that's
another column.

Because I normally use tofu in stir-fry or nabe dishes, I usually purchase the firm or extra
firm variety. The soft variety are great when using tofu for dessert recipes, especially the
silken soft types which are basically soft tofu custards. I rarely use the medium variety...
unless I have a grill basket. Heated over charcoal then covered with fine bonito flakes
(which writhe and twist from the heat), finely sliced green onion and a touch of reduced
sato-shoyu sauce. Maybe with tsukemono and a light bodied ginjo sake...
Freezing then thawing tofu produces a totally different textured product somewhere
between abuurage and cooked chicken. Since tofu is mostly water, freezing and thawing
removes most of the moisture content giving it a "meatier" texture. Added to curries, it
adds additional protein without extra fat (I once tried this approach in vegetarian chili...
it didn't work since the white strands stood out against the dark red chili sauce) or added
to nabes to replace abuurage.

Northern California Soy & Tofu Festival

For a day filled with soy and tofu, plan on attending the Northern California Soy & Tofu
Festival at San Francisco's Japantown Peace Plaza on June 11, 2011 from 11:00am to
4:00pm. The day's festivities include a Tofu Dessert Competition with a $100 Grand
Prize! In celebration of all that is soy, I've included my own updated take on a classic
Japanese dish, Oyako Donburi. Referring to the chicken and egg in the dish (oya =
parent, ko = child), I've updated the dish to a soy based creation featuring edamame and
tofu (soybean = parent, tofu = child) over a flavored brown rice.

The Gochiso Gourmet's New Oyako Donburi

20 to 24 ounce firm tofu, mashed
2 tbsp dried or fresh sliced green onion

1 large carrot, peeled then thinly sliced
1 small onion sliced with the grain to 1/4 inch slices
2 bamboo shoots, thinly sliced with the grain
1/3 c dried shiitake rehydrated overnight
1 thumb-sized piece of peeled fresh ginger

1 c water from rehydrated shiitake
3 tbsp shoyu
2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp sake or shochu

4 to 6 egg whites beaten

Cook brown rice with 1/4 cup of nametake chazuke (bottled enoki mushrooms cooked
in flavored shoyu) and 3/4 cup of frozen shelled edamame.

Combine mashed tofu and green onions and let sit. Combine shiitake water, shoyu, sugar
and sake/shochu.

Over medium heat, saute carrot, onion and bamboo shoots with non-stick spray for
several minutes. Add rehydrated shiitake and ginger. Add shoyu mixture and bring to a
simmer. Add tofu and simmer for several minutes then add beaten egg whites and cook
until the egg white have congealed. Serve over the edamame brown rice.

Freezing then thawing the tofu gives the tofu a firmer texture like cooked chicken.
Adding the tofu as is gives it a creamier texture (but makes the dish a little more
watery). Your choice on the consistency.