Here in the West, meanwhile, tofu gets a bad rap; it’s doomed to a reputation as health food in the worst, most obligatory sense. For everyone who praises its versatility and adaptability to surrounding flavors, others seem to find that same blank-slatedness to be the worst trait imaginable.
In Asia, where tofu has been a staple for thousands of years, no such debate rages. That might be because cooks there are accustomed to super-fresh tofu, whose creamy texture and mild (but not absent) flavor match the cuisines. In Japan, where subtlety is often the goal, tofu fits right in. In China, its blandness can help offset, say, the numbing fire of Sichuan peppercorns.
Back in the States, tofu’s watery-yet-rubbery texture, not its taste (or lack thereof), is what I’ve most often objected to, especially when I cook with it. Even after I drain and press it, that texture seems to make it prone to sticking or falling apart — or both — when stir-fried. Broiled, pan-fried or deep-fried, it can get tough if I’m not careful. And no matter what I would do with it, I couldn’t get much flavor into it, or certainly out of it, although I have frequently turned to the silken variety (rather than firm) to blend with herbs and seasonings for one of my go-to salad dressings.
I persisted because I was drawn to the fact that before you open the package, tofu can last in the refrigerator (or even in the pantry, depending on the variety) for weeks. But once it’s open, the clock starts ticking and you have to change the water it’s submerged in every day if you want to keep the tofu around for a week. That’s a hassle for a busy single cook interested in smaller portions.
I knew there was much more to learn about this ingredient; how could millions of people be wrong? Yet I set it aside in favor of easier, more obviously appealing ingredients.
My tastes are evolving, however, and as I’ve found myself cooking less and less meat at home out of health and environmental concerns (and partly to make up for the meat I eat in restaurants), tofu has returned to my repertoire as a high-quality source of protein. It’s nowhere near eggs and beans, in my book, but it’s moving in that direction.
I’ve gotten around my objections by focusing on marinated and baked tofu, partly because its refrigerator life is longer and relatively hassle-free, giving me multiple chances to use it before it starts to go off.
Store-bought versions are particularly dense, holding up well in a stir-fry, and they can be great when added to salads or even sandwiches. But they are much more expensive than plain tofu, and their sauce is so packed with flavor that they are less versatile. Moreover, the ingredient list includes such things as caramel color, xanthan gum and citric acid, a shame when the original product can be so pure.