Honestly, I never used to eat tofu in the UK. It was expensive, and if someone prepared a tofu dish for me, more often than not it was uninspiring and tasteless. Tofu is seen as a firm vegetarian option back home and not something that carnivorous people like myself would usually choose to eat. However, now that I live in Japan I eat tofu quite often because I’ve learnt how to cook it properly. On its own, tofu can be boring and flavourless – it’s all about how you cook it, and what you cook it with. Yet even with my new-found tofu knowledge, it’s still a jungle out there. I walk into the supermarket and see dozens of types of tofu lined up and I think… seriously, what’s the difference? It’s all just tofu, right? Well, that’s what you’re about to find out…
First, let’s review what tofu actually is because you’d be surprised at how many people don’t know what tofu is made from. It is made from soybeans – that pillar of Japanese dining which seems to feature in ingredients and recipes all over the place. The soybeans are turned into milk, which is then curdled and pressed into blocks. This is how you’ve probably seen tofu for sale in the supermarket – little white blocks in plastic containers.
The difference in types is defined by how soft or hard the tofu is, and whether or not it has been pre-cooked. This comes in handy when you think about how you’re going to use it. For example, if you’re going to chuck some tofu in a stir fry, you don’t want something that is going to break up and turn to mush as soon as you give it a stir. Similarly, if you want a nice smooth little blob of tofu floating in your miso soup, you don’t want to pick a brand of tofu that is tough and chewy. So, let’s look at the different types of tofu available:
Yakitofu – For those of you who have been brushing up on your Japanese, you’ll know that ‘yaki’ means fried. Fried tofu is the hardest of the tofus and is slightly grilled before being packaged to give it a firmer exterior. You can see black track marks on the surface of the tofu from where it has been grilled.
Momentofu – This type is not quite so firm as the fried tofu, but neither is it too soft and squidgy. Momen translates as cotton, which is easy to remember when you see the pressed surface of the tofu block which looks like it has had a piece of cotton bandage printed into it. If you look at the block from the side, you will see it has quite a few imperfections and air bubbles in it. This kind of tofu holds together quite well and is good to use in more vigorous cooking.
– More Japanese trivia here – do you know the meaning of ‘Kinu’? It actually means silk, so you can guess from the name ‘silk tofu’ that this type of tofu is the softest. You don’t want to try putting this in a stir fry! The surface of a kinutofu block will be smooth and watery.
Aburaage – This is deep fried tofu that looks quite different to its soft, white brothers and sisters. It ends up looking more like a skin of tofu – an air bubble forms in the middle which makes the Aburaage tofu excellent for stuffing full of delicious, flavoursome ingredients. It can also be sliced up into strips to be used in stir fry or soups.
Atsuage – Another popular type of tofu, this tofu is soft and white in the middle like kinutofu, but the outside is brown and chewy. It is prepared by being fried slowly in oil to create the brown skin that protects the soft inside.
Tofu is a fresh processed food, and once you’ve opened the packet, it needs to be eaten within a couple of days. Generally speaking, when I buy a packet of tofu, I buy the amount that I’m going to use in one time to save the open packets sitting around for days before I feel like cooking tofu again. Tofu is one of those flavourless foods that sucks up other smells and flavours really easily – this is great when you’re cooking it, but not so great when you have it sitting in the fridge sucking up the smells of everything else you’ve got in there. Conveniently (because, if there is one thing that Japan consistently is, it’s convenient) you can buy packets of tofu in a wide variety of sizes, including multi-packs of single person portions to make it easier to cook for one.
One great tip a Japanese friend told me was to freeze tofu before you use it. Regardless of which type of tofu I buy, I tend to use it for vigorous cooking purposes such as stir fry or curry. Freezing the tofu block makes it a lot firmer when you cook it – the only problem is that it takes at least 24 hours to defrost, and once it does you will need to squeeze the excess liquids out of it. But it’s worth it to be able to have some nice, firm tofu in your dish rather than sad little lumps of separated soy curds. It’s always good to remember that tofu should be added last – cook all the meat and vegetables first, and then throw the tofu in.
So now you’ve got the low-down on the different varieties of tofu, but are you convinced? If you’ve never had a really good tofu dish before, some convincing is certainly needed before you believe that tofu can be delicious.
Tofu is packed full of protein which is why it is so popular with vegetarians and vegans because they miss out on essential proteins that most people get from fish and meat. It is also high in calcium, iron and amino acids amongst other things. Eating tofu instead of meat is a great way to lower cholesterol. There is also evidence to suggest that eating foods like tofu can help reduce recurrence rates of cancer, and to fight diabetes.
When cooked in the right way, a tofu curry can be just as filling as a meat curry. There are speciality vegetarian restaurants that cook tofu in special ways to make it look and taste just like meat. Even without these culinary tricks, tofu can be made delicious just by cooking it in a flavoursome sauce. If you love satay chicken then try cooking a block of firm tofu in satay sauce for a healthier option. Silk tofu is great for blending into purée and using in puddings, especially sweet ones with honey. If you like your tofu fried nice and crispy, try dipping it in a sweet chilli sauce for a flavour that packs a punch. For more ideas of inventive ways to cook tofu, check out this Guardian article of 10 top ways to cook with tofu.
So, are you sold on the idea of tofu yet? After years of avoiding the stuff like the plague, I’ve had a complete change of heart and now willingly eat tofu on a weekly basis. Even for Japanese people it’s not a daily staple, but if you get into the habit of using tofu in Japan, your dishes will be cheap to prepare and good for your health. Eating like the locals is one of the best parts of living in a foreign country, so forget the slogan ‘You Are What You Eat’ and instead, learn the mantra ‘You Eat Where You Are’.