Not Just for Vegetarians, Tofu Has Subtle Charms

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Do you tofu?

If there isn't a block or shred of soybean curd in your refrigerator right now, chances are it crosses your plate only in restaurants, or not at all. Vegetarians, vegans and dietitians know that tofu is high in protein, iron and calcium, has little saturated fat and may help lower cholesterol. Plain tofu is mild, easy to cook with and relatively inexpensive, has a reasonably long shelf life and is more readily available in more forms than it was 16 years ago, when the research firm Soyatech began tracking tofu sales in the United States.

Omnivorous home cooks might be equally aware of tofu's charms, but they are not captivated. The same blandness and spongelike qualities that make tofu so versatile also make it a tough first-time sell. Packaged, it comes in dull beige or white rectangles. You can find it fresh, but there's something less than appealing about watching portions of it get cleaved from open buckets of milky liquid -- for some American sensibilities, anyway.

With food prices causing pain at the checkout counter and a growing movement to improve the American diet, there ought to be more tofu love. Yet U.S. tofu sales numbers suggest otherwise, falling from a peak of $265 million in 2003 to $244 million in 2007. Studies on consumer attitudes about nutrition, health and soy foods, sponsored by the United Soybean Board, show that Americans are much keener about soy milk, soy-based meat substitutes and soy snacks. Not surprisingly, those are the soy products heavily marketed in television commercials and cooking magazines.

Tofu cookbooks have cropped up every few years since "The Book of Tofu" by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi was released in 1975. Veteran chef and cookbook author Deborah Madison says her cheerful "This Can't Be Tofu!" (Broadway Books, 2000) still generates royalties; about 100,000 copies have been published to date. (She and her husband cook with tofu at home every other week, and Madison gives tofu workshops in her home state of New Mexico, showing Hispanic cooks at food banks how to incorporate the donated protein source in their dishes.)

An attitude adjustment could start with the foods featured in "Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China." The new memoir by Jen Lin-Liu, an American-born journalist in Beijing who started her own cooking school there last year, includes 29 recipes, several of which are simple tofu dishes.

"Think of it as cheese. It's really like the cheese of China, where people have been eating it for 4,000 years," she said last week during a Stateside visit, referring to the ways tofu can be used in fried, grilled, sauteed and scrambled applications.

To that end, she came up with ways for American cooks to work a little more soybean curd into their weekly repertoire:

· Substitute shredded tofu for the pasta in a favorite pasta salad recipe. Some packages of the noodles recommend a brief bath in water, but the tofu can be used straight from the package.

· Stir soft tofu into scrambled eggs for a creamier texture without adding much fat.

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