So the thing about writing a snobbish article about the proper way to cook tofu, and using your favorite professor as an example, is that at some point you will have to answer to said professor.
"Tofu with olives and sun-dried tomatoes really is very delicious," he insisted to me last week. "I will have to prepare it for you, so that you can see for yourself."
Well, I never say no to a home-cooked meal, even if it involves tofu and olives. To make things more interesting, I proposed that I make my own tofu dish while he was at work on his, so that I could re-emphasize my claim that the best tofu dishes are the traditional ones.
"So whaddya say?" I asked him over the phone. “Do you think you can handle the heat?”
It was to be a tofu throwdown. The terms of the cook-off? First, that we would prepare our respective dishes with the same brand and type of tofu, so that we could explore the range of its use. Second, that the dishes would represent what we felt to be a good application of tofu in cookery—specifically, that the dishes would need to retain a taste of tofu instead of masking its presence.
I thought long and hard about what tofu dish I’d want to present. I was looking for something that would appeal to his palate, yet stay true to a preparation that was fundamentally Asian. It was a tricky balance, I thought, to find something recognizable to the American eater that was also traditional.
Finally, in recalling the tofu-in-lasagna dilemma, it dawned on me that the Chinese themselves have been readily using ground meat with tofu in the classic home-style dish called Lion’s Head with Cabbage. Minced tofu is combined with pork and egg to form especially tender meatballs, which are then fried and braised in a dark sauce. The tofu, even though it has been minced, retains the underlying flavor of soy because its passage through oil seals in the flavor. Like any good meatball, the tofu-meat balls remain juicy on the inside yet are pleasantly brown on the surface, and it is the contrast in textures that makes the dish so good. Napa cabbage is traditionally used for its creaminess, but I also like to pair the tofu-meat balls with well-braised savoy or lightly steamed bok choy.
Taking turns in the kitchen, I went first to fry the tofu-meat balls. After a simmering in the sauce, the members of the house pronounced the tofu-meat balls to be juicy and the broth light yet flavorful. Then, with an anthropological fascination, I watched my professor as he composed his own tofu dish. He tried to ask me questions about the tofu but I shook my head firmly. A good anthropologist, after all, cannot interact with her subjects.
From the outset, I began to grow skeptical of the venture. There was no cooking involved in the tofu, and my feeling on not applying heat is that the tofu had better be impeccably fresh and creamy. Silken tofu, dressed in fragrant oil or syrup and seasonings, is commonly served as-is when it very fresh and sweet, but we were using firm blocks from a regular supermarket. Still, I waited and watched.
Using a base of orzo, he added to the bowl the squares of raw tofu. Then, over the course of half an hour, I watched as he tossed in capers, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, canned artichoke hearts, and marinated peppers, all roughly chopped.
In went a few generous splashes of balsamic vinegar and then, I was told that we should wait for a while to “let the flavors soak into the tofu.”
“So is this the usual way you make a tofu dish?” I asked.
“It depends, I suppose, on what we have lying around the house,” he replied. At the very last moment before serving, he added lemon juice and pickles to the mix.
The tofu and orzo dish was pungent from the various oils and brines that had entered the bowl; the tofu, while not bland, still tasted raw and quite unfinished to my Asian palate. As the others around the table took seconds of the tofu and orzo, I began to wonder if I had been too authoritarian in my approach. What, after all, determined that my dish was tastier than his, if such a thing could even be measured objectively? I cited numerous reasons—that my tofu had been fried to seal in the juiciness, that the simmering had then enriched the taste, and that my delicate broth of soy sauce and shiitake did not overwhelm the flavor of the tofu.
Even with all those reasons laid out, I understood that personal tastes can vary wildly, and that some might simply prefer their tofu with capers. Yet I found myself bothered by the mere fact that the tofu-orzo dish was appealing to his palate. Perhaps my uneasiness stems from my belief that we, as eaters, should be able to explain why a particular item tastes good, or not.
“You don’t have to finish it if you don't want to,” he told me cheerfully as he watched me chewing on the tofu.
Of course, I cleaned the plate and got a second helping. It’s not every day that you participate in a tofu throwdown with your favorite professor, even if his signature tofu dish has dill pickles in it.
Lion’s Head with Cabbage
Adapted from The Shun Lee Cookbook by Michael Tong.
- For the meatballs:
- 8 ounces firm tofu, draned
- 10 ounces ground pork
- 1 green onion, minced
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- vegetable oil, for frying
- For the sauce:
- 3 cups pork or chicken stock
- 1/4 cup Shao Xing rice wine
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 green onions, trimmed and cut in half
- 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, cut into 3 segments
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
To make the meatballs: Using a cleaver, mash the tofu and then mince it finely. Using your hands or chopsticks, lightly mix the ground pork, green onion, egg, salt, and cornstarch until the ingredients are just combined. Add the tofu and mix very briefly. Take care not to overwork the mixture, which will result in tough tofu-meat balls.
Using your hands, pick up a large segment of the tofu-pork mixture and toss it against the side of the bowl. Repeat a few times; this throwing process ensures that the balls will not come apart when fried in oil.
Heat a wok with approximately 2 inches of oil. Form the tofu-meat balls into 6 very large balls, or smaller ones according to your preference. Fry until the surface is golden-brown, about 3 minutes. Drain the balls and set aside.
To start the sauce, combine the stock, rice wine, soy sauce, scallions, ginger, sugar, and pepper in a separate saucepan. Add the meatballs and cabbage and simmer over medium-low heat for about 15 to 20 minutes.
Make a cornstarch slurry, dissolving 1 tablespoon of starch into 3 tablespoons of water. Add the slurry to the pan and simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, about 30 seconds. Serve immediately. Leftover tofu-meat balls will keep well for many days; out of the casserole, the balls also taste delicious in noodle soup.