With the exception of vegetarians, most people have yet to discover the delights and conveniences of tofu, the highly nutritious soya product: it is the soya bean’s equivalent of the fresh cheese made from cow’s milk — but it is much more versatile.
Tofu, which used to be called beancurd, is nowadays mainly associated in western countries with Japanese food, but the Chinese invented it from scratch.
The soya bean and its by-products are among the greatest gifts the Chinese have given to gourmets and vegetarians. Just two of these products, soya sauce and tofu, are essential in Chinese and Japanese cuisine.
The history of the soya bean began more than 3,000 years ago when farmers in the eastern part of north China planted the black and brown seeds of the wild recumbent soya bean vine. After long decades of patient work they managed to make the soya bean grow straight and give larger seeds.
These farmers had discovered a new crop rich in high quality protein that had the advantage of growing well in soil too poor to support other plant life.
That the farmers were delighted with their new food is seen in some of the names they gave it: Yellow Jewel, Great Treasure, Bring Happiness and Heaven’s Bird.
Over the next few centuries, the use of the soya bean spread throughout China and became one of the country’s staple foods. It was also destined to travel to Japan and all over Asia. In more recent times the western world discovered it.
The soya bean turned out to be amazingly versatile. It gave the Chinese the now omnipresent soya sauce, soya milk, beansprouts, soya flour and what they called doufu.
When doufu was taken up by the Japanese, they called it tofu and as they exported it to the west, the rest of the world called it tofu — and thought it was a Japanese product.
Most historians trace the origin of tofu to Liu An, a Han dynasty duke who lived about 2,300 years ago. Today he is the patron saint of businesses that make and distribute tofu and September 15, his birthday, is celebrated as Tofu Day.
The Japanese upper classes of the 14th century borrowed many ideas from Chinese culture, including writing characters, laws, political institutions and Buddhism. The latter was the most significant import of the lot.
With Buddhism arrived in the 14th century, the Japanese nation converted en masse to vegetarianism — the only time this has ever happened in the history of mankind.
As tofu was an essential element in the diet of Chinese Buddhist monks, this vegetable protein also became a staple in the Japanese diet.
Because of its high protein content, tofu is sometimes called ‘vegetable meat’ but it is also known as ‘vegetable cheese’ because of the way it is made. Until relatively recently, tofu in Britain and the United States was called beancurd.
Tofu is made by soaking soya beans for between four and eight hours, depending on the season: they need less soaking in the summer than during the cold winter months.
The beans are then boiled and put through a press to extract their white milk-like liquid. This is heated to boiling point and transferred to another container that holds a curdling agent.
The curds are then put into cloth-lined moulds and stones weighing up to 30 kilos are stacked on top to press out excess water. The tofu is ready after it has been under pressure for half an hour.
That, at any rate, is the traditional artisanal way of making tofu. In the ancient Japanese of Kyoto until not so long ago, there were 25,000 tofu makers who worked the same kind of shifts as bakers to provide fresh tofu every morning.
But nowadays machines have taken over and most of the tofu at supermarkets in China and Japan comes from big factories.
You can buy excellent tofu at the Chinese supermarkets in the Plaza Pedro Grau area. The best one is in Calle Capitan Vila, just off the Plaza Pedro Garau, walking down towards the sea.
You will also find good supplies of tofu at health food shops and also at the supermarkets of El Corte Inglés in the Avenidas and Avda Jaime III. Palma’s best health food shop is Yerbabuena in Calle Cecili Metel, off the Plaza de los Patines where the Celler Sa Premsa is.
If you are unfamiliar with tofu the best way to discover it is in authentic Chinese restaurants in the Plaza Pedro Garau area, which has become Palma’s Chinatown.
In Chinese and Japanese cooking, fresh tofu is shredded, sliced or diced and then stir-fried, deep-fried or steamed. It can also be smoked or marinated.
The Chinese are especially fond of tofu when it has been fermented and takes on a salty aromatic flavour. Deep-fried fermented tofu is a special treat for them when served with plain white rice.
Tofu is, or should be, an essential part of a vegetarian diet because it contains high quality vegetable protein. It is unusual among vegetarian foods in that it has all the essential amino acids, usually found together only in animal meats.
It is low in fat, making it ideal for weight watchers: 100 grs contain only 72 calories. It provides as much calcium as fresh milk and is a good source of iron.
Fresh tofu is extremely bland but is a great absorber of strong tastes. When using it for the first time, mix it carefully into a salad with a well-flavoured herbal dressing.
I sometimes dress a salad, transfer it to a flat serving dish, and then sprinkle the surface with cubes of tofu. I then add drops of concentrated flavours to the tofu: balsamic vinegar, Tabasco, teriyaki or soya sauce. Tofu is superb when generously sprinkled with freshly ground top quality black peppercorns.
Tofu, like fresh cheese, also combines nicely with sweet ingredients. Those who are allergic to eggs or milk can make cheesecake with it. Another asset is that it doesn’t need any extra cooking as the beans were boiled to extract their milk.
Tofu is not a difficult ingredient to work with and most of the recipes I know are easy enough. Once you have used tofu a few times you will quickly realise it gives you plenty of scope even if your talents don’t run to creative cookery.
You can add tofu as it comes to stir-fried vegetables, use it as the main part of quiche filling, add it to a veggie cottage pie, use it as the main ingredient in a vegetarian lasagna, and include it in just about any salad you can think of.
Tofu gives a lovely creamy effect to a dish of lentils, for a mere fraction of real cream’s calorie content. It can also be added to a vegetarian curry where it will soak up all the spicy flavours.
Tofu’s flavour is so delicate it is almost imperceptible, which means it combines well with most foods, absorbing the tastes of the other ingredients, whether they be savoury or sweet.
So don’t hesitate to use it in cakes, tarts and desserts of all kinds. A cheesecake made with tofu instead of fresh cheese is a delight. Cubed tofu, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds, becomes an easy-peasy little dessert.
Most of the tofu recipes I know have a long lost of ingredients that can be a turn-off for some people. But don’t let that discourage you because the method is quite simple. So let’s begin with a couple of recipes that are as suitable for breakfast as they are for a light luncheon.
Tofu can be scrambled to produce an egg-like dish that is quite delicious. You will need: olive oil, a finely chopped small onion, two spring onions with lots of green, a finely chopped garlic clove, a pinch of turmeric (cúrcuma, in Spanish), ground cumin to taste (or any other spice you fancy), freshly ground black pepper, 300 grs tofu, 1 tsp lemon juice, salt to taste and a heaped tbsp finely chopped parsley.
Heat the oil in a suitable frying pan over a medium heat. Add the finely chopped onion and spring onion and sauté for two minutes. Mix in the chopped garlic and sauté for another minute, stirring non-stop. Stir in the turmeric, cumin, black pepper and any other spices you are using and sauté for another minute.
Add the mashed tofu and stir for several minutes until the ingredients are well combined and have nice degree of moisture. Stir in the lemon juice and salt to taste, sprinkle over the parsley and serve immediately on hot plates.
I dislike giving vegetarian dishes meaty names such as sausages, cutlets or steaks. Some vegetarian cookbooks would refer to the following recipe as a tofu burger, but I prefer to call it a tofu cake.
Recipe for a tofu cake
You will need: 500 grs mashed tofu, herbs of your choice, 150 grs slice of Majorcan country bread without crust, 1 tbsp soya sauce, finely chopped garlic clove, 1 finely chopped onion sautéed in olive oil until soft, 1 finely chopped celery stalk and black pepper to taste.
FOR THE COATING: wholemeal flour and salt to taste, or polenta with a little wholemeal flour.
Soak the crustless slice of bread in milk for five minutes, squeeze dry and mix it into the other ingredients until everything is well combined. Shape into six thick round cakes. Sprinkle coating mixture on both sides, patting it into the surface.
Sauté on both sides until golden or light brown. The cakes don’t have to be cooked but they must be hot. They can also be baked in a hottish oven.
Creamy lentils, with tofu providing the creamy bit, will be ideal for the cold days of winter that will soon be here. With wholemeal bread and salad, lentils make a comforting and healthy light luncheon.
You can cook your own lentils, but make it easy for yourself and use a jar of good quality lentils such as the J’ae brand from Navarra. You will find them at El Corte Inglés where they cost €1.38 for 400 grs jar (drained weight).You will also need: 2 chopped onions, 2 bay leaves, 1 tbsp chopped parsley, 250 grs tofu, 400 grs fresh or canned tomatoes, 1 vegetable bouillon cube, 2 tbsps olive oil and pepper to taste.
Sauté the chopped onion in olive oil for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the finely chopped tomatoes and bay leaves and cook, covered, for 20 minutes, stirring from time to time. Dissolve the bouillon cube in 250 mls of hot water, add to the mixture and bring to simmering point.
Tip the jar of lentils into a colander and rinse under running water. Add them to the tomato mixture and cook for another 10 minutes. Take the lentils off the heat and mix in the mashed tofu. Stir in the chopped parsley and season to taste with black pepper. The lentils shouldn’t need any salt as the bouillon cube contains a good deal.
For a spicy curry dish that gives the tofu plenty of flavour to absorb, you will need: 1 finely chopped medium sized onion, 4 tbsps olive oil, 1 garlic clove, 1 aubergine, 100 grs mushrooms, big tin of tomatoes blitzed in a blender, 250 grs tofu, 1 heaped teaspoon each of ground cumin, turmeric, coriander, garam masala, chilli powder to taste, crushed seeds from five cardamom pods and salt to taste.
Dice the tofu, thinly slice the onion and aubergine and quarter the mushrooms. Sauté the onion over a lowish heat until golden, then add the spices and sauté for about two minutes. Stir in the sliced aubergine and sauté gently for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the mushrooms and stir until the are coated with oil and spices.
Stir in the blitzed tomatoes, bring to the boil, and simmer for 20 minutes. Gently fold in the diced tofu and cook for another two minutes. Serve on a bed of plain boiled basmati rice.