Note: Every week, SE intern Chichi Wang will be discussing some aspect of Asian cookery, with an emphasis on the traditional, underappreciated, or misunderstood elements thereof.
"While I'm amenable to the idea that somewhere out there, someone is baking one mean lasagna with tofu layered in the middle, I'm willing to bet that the best tofu dishes are the traditional ones."
I have a sneaking suspicion about the state of tofu in this country. I suspect that too many people are using tofu in the same way that they would a raw brined cheese like feta, sprinkled sparsely in salads, or like plain white yogurt in a smoothie. In the homes of well-meaning friends who know of my love of soy, I've been served baked tofu, desiccated like jerky and then slathered in dark soy sauce. And too many times I've been witness to a friend mixing it haphazardly into scrambled eggs to in order to boost the nutritional content of the dish.
I would like to say that these practices are merely exceptions, but over the years my sample group has only grown larger and confirmed my initial suspicions. This informal fact-finding mission has arisen largely out of my incessant need to know what other people are eating and cooking for themselves. I am the person at the dinner party who asks if I can take a look inside your refrigerator and your cupboards; if given the chance, I will steer any conversation towards the topic of what you don't like to eat. It's a strange perversion, I know, to be so nosy about these things, but I like to think that over the years I've developed a certain finesse in my approach.
This past weekend, for instance, I had the happy occasion to spend the Fourth of July with a former professor of mine whose parents live on Long Island. It was a relaxing day, filled with the sort of interesting, wonderfully desultory conversations that used to take place during his office hours. Skillfully maneuvering the talk towards the topic of food, I asked my professor how he used tofu at home.
"Well," he began, "sometimes I'll cut it up and toss it in a salad with olives and tomatoes, with maybe a little feta as well. And it's good crumbled in lasagna, I suppose."
A silence followed as I struggled to find the right words to express my confusion.
"And I don't like the soft tofu, only the firm," he added.
This is my favorite professor, the man I trusted to guide me through my studies and the reason I can put together a decent essay. He's erudite, inquisitive, and the type of person who likes to talk about the foundations of knowledge... and he puts tofu in his lasagna.
So what am I trying to say here? Certainly, I want to express my disapproval over putting tofu in traditional Italian meals, but I don't want to go as far as saying that tofu can never be used in Western applications of cooking. Cuisines are shaped by ever-evolving influences, and sometimes it takes the clash of two very different traditions to produce a truly novel dish. Yet in all my tofu-eating years, I've never been as happy eating tofu as I am when the recipe is firmly anchored in one particular Asian cuisine, be it Chinese, Japanese, or Korean.
Under the fiery heat of a wok, a Chinese preparation of tofu can be rapid yet flavorful; the tofu is enriched by the taste of the protein or vegetables in the stir-fry, yet it retains the flavor of soy. Both the Chinese and the Japanese offer a dizzying array of soy and tofu products, some of which are reconstituted in water and others that are used to great effect in simmered dishes. And when I have a cold, there's nothing more soothing than my own pot of silken Korean tofu, simmered in a spicy broth. The soup is a tiny cauldron of bubbling soup and tofu, thickened at the very end with a raw egg cracked directly into the bowl.
So while I'm amenable to the idea that somewhere out there, someone is baking one mean lasagna with tofu layered in the middle, I'm willing to bet that the best tofu dishes are the traditional ones. Dengaku, a Japanese method in which a miso-laden sauce is brushed onto various grilled foods, is traditionally used to treat cotton tofu, the firm type favored by my professor and many others. A generous lathering in the Dengaku sauce caramelizes the surface of the tofu, rendering it golden and pleasantly charred. In the center, the tofu remains tender yet flavorful, absorbing the complex flavors of the miso. Tofu Dengaku makes for a hearty lunch or a simple yet satisfying dinner, accompanied by nothing more than a bowl of miso soup and a good quality, medium-grain Japanese rice.
Adapted from Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji.
- One block of firm tofu (also called cotton)
- 1/3 cup of a miso of your choice, preferably a combination of white and red
- 2 eggs yolks
- 2 tablespoons sake
- 2 tablespoons mirin
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 3 tablespoons dashi, or water
- Toppings (optional):
- Sesame seeds
- Grated lemon or yuzu rind
- Fresh ginger juice
To make the miso sauce: Nest a bowl on top of simmering water, or use a double boiler if you have one. Put the miso in the bowl along with the egg yolks, sake, mirin, and sugar. If you cannot find mirin, a type of sweet sake used for cooking, replace it with one more tablespoon of sugar.
Over the simmering water, gradually add the dashi. Stir until thick, and adjust seasonings to taste if needed. Depending on what type of miso you've chosen, the sauce will veer toward the sweet or salty side. At the last moment, add one of the toppings if desired.
To prepare the tofu: Remove the tofu as a block from its packaging, and set it on a chopping board. Wrap the tofu in a clean tea towel. Weigh the block of tofu down with a drop lid (if you have one) and an appropriately heavy item.
Cut tofu into 2-inch blocks. Skewer each piece and grill on both sides over a hot charcoal fire, until the surface is browned and the tofu is heated through. Alternatively, set the tofu in a shallow pan and broil for a few minutes in the oven.
Remove from the fire and generously lather one side with the miso sauce. Sprinkle with garnishes, like sesame seeds, if you like. Grill or broil the miso-covered side for one or two minutes, until the topping is browned. Serve immediately.