I’ve never been immune to the appeal of single-subject cookbooks. There are dozens on my shelves, offering easy mastery of everything from salad and muffins to shellfish and barbecued ribs. Some have great glossaries and sidebars, others gorgeous photos. You might find terrific essays on the history and science of the food, or knock-’em-dead recipes. All too often, though, these elements are not to be found housed together between the same two covers.
“Asian Tofu,” by veteran author Andrea Nguyen, is an exception. If you want to learn about the exacting process that turns soy milk into tofu (or do it yourself), you can. If you need a picture of a fermented tofu jar so you can find it at the Asian market, it’s here. And if you want to get beyond the tofu that merely subs in for pork at your local Chinese establishment, or floats in a bowl of miso soup, well, welcome to the world of bean curd, ever so much more savory and varied than you thought.
Those of us who have cooked bland tofu stir-fries often blame the tofu, but that’s missing the point. The key is to recognize that in many cases tofu works best as a vehicle for flavor rather than a source of flavor itself. Tofu absorbs seasonings better than most proteins; it’s hard to make a chicken taste more chickeny, but you can make tofu taste like pretty much whatever you want.
Sometimes the flavor is all on the surface, as in miso-glazed broiled tofu, with its sweet, crisp topcoat. You’d have to work hard to spend more than 20 minutes making it. Or the flavor is ladled on top, as in pan-fried tofu with mushroom and spicy sesame sauce. Or, flavor might be delivered through vegetables, as in a dish of simmered mustard greens and spinach with fried cubes of tofu, a twist on saag paneer. In all of these cases it’s easier than you think to get a nice seared crust on tofu. Just drain, blot, and use a nonstick pan judiciously.
You can quickly erase memories of sad, pale, previous tofu attempts with stir-fried tofu, shrimp, and peas. It’s got all the usual suspects — ginger, scallion, rice wine, soy sauce, cornstarch, plus added flavor from a quick shrimp stock you make from the shells — but in just enough quantity to keep every bite alive. I expected it to be boring, but I’m happy to admit I was wrong.
Occasionally, these recipes use ingredients you will only find in Asian markets. Even if you do find it, you may not take a shine to bitter melon with tofu and pork. It’s an acquired taste. My kids complained, well, bitterly, yet at the end of dinner there wasn’t any left. If you can get hold of red fermented tofu (often a key ingredient in the roast pork buns you like in Chinatown), it adds a sweet, savory depth to roast chicken when massaged deeply with honey into the skin. And pressed tofu is ready to slice and eat on a moment’s notice. Try it with peanuts in a spicy black bean sauce.
It’s hard to get terribly fussy with tofu, but Hakka-style stuffed tofu comes close. Here, tofu pockets are filled with dried shrimp and pork and served in an irresistible, aromatic gingery sauce. If no one’s watching, you can just toss the insides of the tofu (which you have scooped out to make pockets) into the pan and gobble them up along with the rest.
The most gratifying part about cooking from “Asian Tofu” is that all the recipes work the way they’re written. Nguyen never forgets details: what texture to watch for, when you should use your judgment with seasonings, the sometimes weird ways ingredients behave. Just once I ran out of liquid when finishing a dish and had to add a little more, but that was it. These are recipes you can trust, which, if you’re seeking to become more familiar with this wonderfully versatile food, is exactly what you want.