The Chic yet Humble Tofu and Its Thousand Faces

Steamed beancurd skin layered with fish paste in soybean broth. A Chef Chan Tak Kwong dim sum creation / ©PseuPending

Foods have personalities. Some are robustly colorful and headstrong. Some are serene, smooth, and wise. Beancurd (tofu) is the latter, reminiscent of the Daoist thoughts of the Han Chinese prince Liu An (179–122 BC) — legendary beancurd advocate:

Quietude enables us to reach far

The purest of taste, yet fulfilling, gentle to all our senses, willingly yields like an angel who answers all silent questions. That’s my memory of the simple silken tofu.

Oh yes, angels come in different sizes and forms. Little did Liu An know even the gossamer-thin layer of beancurd skin became gourmet creations.

The flimsy sheet carefully lifted from hot soya milk when it’s set — can stack like a steamed savory mille-feuille. A recent sampling of this amazing delicacy comprises 32 sheets, with finely hand-minced fish paste spread between each layer, served in smooth, rich soybean broth. The fragrant soybean goodness makes me wonder where I’ve been all this time.

Then there’re the slurpy yellow ones mixed with eggs, the mature firm tofu, Liaoning-style frozen tofu, the famous-to-foodies fermented and fried “stinky tofu”, and ooooohh…the ever so popular supersoft-tofu with a delightfully ephemeral mouth feel, eaten with brown sugar or light syrup as dessert. The humble soybean puree stretches imagination across longitudes and latitudes. I love them all.

The most legendary, right up there with the “stinky tofu”? None other than the 1-inch square x half-inch double-ripened, preserved fermented beancurd furu— the humblest of all — among the popular foods in post-WWII years when economies were starting from scratch in some Asian war-torn regions.

A savory aroma, not unlike camembert and rice wine, wafts through the air when an open jar is around, tempting eager chopsticks to dive into the pale creamy yellow squares preserved in oil or brine. Underprivileged families would frugally have a taste of it to go with plain rice or congee. A whole cube per person would be “luxury”. Lovingly nicknamed “tofu cheese”, furu is pure umami!

Culinary tricksters turn these inexpensive cheesy squares into gourmet dishes with meats and vegetables. One such unforgettable experience is the red furu, characterized with red yeast rice and wine, the seasoning that gives char siu the stunning roast its famous red.

Digging into international tofu historians’ documentation of furu is mind-boggling. And who else duly recorded its Ming dynasty Chinese origin but the revered herbalist Li Shizhen in the Great Pharmacopoeia (1596)?

Now for fresh tofu.

Gone are the days of artisans waking before dawn to the tofu workshop — dim, humid, but pleasantly scented with soybean puree. Workers filled wooden trays and set them ready for the market by sunbreak. Primitive yet pristine. Fresh tofu, no preservatives, spoiled easily if not careful. All had to be sold before mid-morning.

Tofu is nothing but soybean puree coagulated, commonly with calcium sulphate or nigari salts. Yet thousands of mouthwatering, jaw-dropping, star-sparkling, diamond-studded beancurd-related dishes jade breakfast, lunch, and dinner tables.

Ichibandashi with king crab leg and tofu. A Chef Maeda Hironori creation/ © PseuPending

Japanese tofu is arguably among the most silken varieties. Though I recall relishing a bowl of ichibandashi — the famous kombu broth — with succulent king crab leg buoyed by a piece of firm tofu that brought out multiple flavors of everything.

Not all gourmet tofu is white or red, or even silken. One of my favorite chefs’ signature creations is the Masterpiece Ma-Po Tofu involving black tofu and a firmer, mature white version. Finely cubed and cooked with minced A4 wagyu beef, the tofu and the New Zealand langoustine, flavorful of oceanic breeze, become soulful companions of land and water — one lifting the other — generously topped with Japanese scallion. And for the heat-lover, green peppercorns and red Sichuan chilies.

Everything is so darned balanced, nothing overpowers anything. Even the metallic bowl exists for good reason — temperature and aroma transfer from an outer arrangement of fresh and dried cinnamon leaves. Intoxicating. Imagination, imagination.

Masterpiece Ma-Po Tofu. A Chef André Chiang creation / © PseuPending

Today tofu artisans create for specialty restaurants. Some prefer it home-made. Recipe? Here’s one. We’ll need unadulterated soya milk. Whichever the choice, the nutrition is present.

Fellow writer M. Murphy debates tofu’s origin as part of modern plant-based food. I focus, however, on tofu in its identity.

Either way, tofu wouldn’t exist without soybean that started in northeastern China. According to Britannica, China domesticated this most nutritionally and economically viable ancient crop 7,000 years ago.

Food makes life more interesting, be it furu in the post-war ’50s or the star-and-diamond-studded dishes. If the world ever has to start again with the single soybean — without current knowledge and talents, how many centuries would pass before we have all the delectable creations?

The original tofu is quietude.

Food glamour is glamour made possible by the creator of the dish, not by the ingredient, not because of exclusivity. That is chic.

There are always those who love to hate the affluent and scorn the poor. But the humble beancurd transcends class. It fulfills the culinary fantasy of multiple flavors, nutrition, textures, availability, kindness to the digestive system, and low cost. Now that is grace.

© PseuPending 2022

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Leisure is a path to the thinking process. Museum Educator/ Contemporary Art Researcher/ Modern Nomad/ Lover of Good Eats. Top writer