Tofu is not known for its wonderful flavour. Or texture. Or visual appeal. In fact, most people’s first reaction to the word is some sort of grimace. This probably stems from the fact that, in England, one of the more available forms of tofu is ‘silken tofu’. This has a very gelatinous texture and is incredibly fragile, in fact I have found it almost impossible to cook silken tofu without it all falling apart and becoming some sort of mush – though this is probably just me. Silken tofu is created by curdling soy milk but the liquid is curdled inside the carton in which it proceeds to be sold, whereas standard firm tofu is curdled and then the liquid is strained off before the curds are pressed into a block.
With records dating back to the Chinese Han dynasty, tofu has been around for about 2000 years. One of the leading theories is that it used to be made by curdling soy milk using sea water – the impurities in the water acted as the coagulants needed – and some forms of tofu are still produced like this today. The production of tofu spread around eastern Asia and it became a popular meat substitute as it is far cheaper.
There are several different types of tofu ranging from extra-soft to extra-firm. Extra-soft tofu has so much liquid in it that it barely holds its own shape – think of the texture of ricotta cheese. The next firmness is standard silken tofu. This tends to be used in desserts and sauces or smoothies as it can be used as a substitute for dairy and eggs. When blended into sauces or smoothies, it gives them a very creamy texture.
For tofu to be firmer than silken tofu, it must be pressed during production. This involves straining out the soy bean curds and then squeezing them to remove as much liquid as possible. The tofu produced from this has a much harder texture and tends to be what I use for cooking. You can press it at home to drive off even more of the liquid by wrapping the block in a tea towel and placing a heavy object on top – I tend to use either a pan or an encyclopaedia. The tofu can then be cooked in a variety of ways to give it the texture you want. Extra-firm tofu is incredibly dry. It is a little rubbery and is firm enough to be sliced very thinly without the pieces breaking. It is sometimes shredded and used instead of noodles in dishes.
Standard tofu is bland. It has basically no flavour whatsoever. This makes it perfect for absorbing flavours from other things so you can always marinade tofu in soy sauce or flavoured oils after it has been pressed to give it some taste. When I bake tofu before adding it to curries and such, I like to add some salt, pepper and sometimes a little curry powder before I put it in the oven as that way it will have a natural taste. The other way to avoid this lack of flavour is continuing to cook your curry for five or so minutes after the tofu has been added as it gives a chance for the moisture from the curry to soften the tofu a little bit and also infuse the flavours of the sauce into it.
Nowadays tofu is only really used as a meat substitute Europe and America. In eastern Asia, it tends to be viewed as just another ingredient and is often used alongside meats or seafood in dishes. A lot of people, especially in England, are not exposed to well cooked tofu when they are younger resulting in the reactions I mentioned at the beginning. With proper seasoning and cooking and, most importantly, the correct type of tofu, I believe most people would appreciate it far more and use tofu when cooking on a more regular basis.
Basic Curry (Vegan)
Prep time: 10 minutes Cook time: 40 minutes Serves: 2
Price per portion: £1.30 (for tofu)
1 block of tofu (400g)
1 large onion
500ml vegetable stock
1 ½ tbsp. curry powder
1 tsp turmeric
2 cloves of garlic – chopped
1 ½ tsp cornflour mixed with 3 tsp water
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to gas mark 6 (200 C).
Drain the tofu and if you have time, press it (this step is optional).
Cut the tofu up into small cubes, I tend to do one horizontal slice through it and then cut it to make cubes which are around a centimetre a centimetre and a half long. The tofu will shrink in the oven.
Line a tray with baking parchment or a silicone mat and spread the tofu out on it.
Drizzle over a little oil or if you use a cooking spray, a couple of sprays of that will also work well.
Season with a little salt and pepper and place in the oven for 40 minutes remembering to turn the tofu every 10 minutes.
After the tofu has been cooking for 20 minutes you can start on the curry.
Chop the onion into wedges (I tend to go for eight of them).
Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large pan or wok and add the onion.
Once the onion starts going translucent, add the stock, garlic and spices.
Simmer for 15 minutes while the tofu finishes off in the oven.
Stir in the soy sauce, sugar and cornflour mix and let the curry sauce thicken. If it is still
very thin, add some more corn flour but if the sauce has become too thick, add some more stock.
Take the tofu out of the oven and pour it into the curry and stir through.
Let the curry simmer for another two minutes to so the tofu can absorb some of the flavour and then serve with sticky rice.
This curry keeps very well so if you are only cooking for yourself, you will have leftovers to eat the next day too. I like to use medium curry powder but if you like a spicy or particularly mild curry, there are different versions available. You can also eat this curry with noodles or bread.
A way to make the curry even cheaper on a budget is just don’t use the tofu! This will also drastically reduce the cooking time and you can replace it with whatever you want. Cubes of carrot work well and you can always throw in water chestnuts and bamboo shoots at the end too to bulk it out. Obviously you can also use meat too but make sure to sear it in the wok before you add the onions and the stock to it.
I hope you enjoyed the recipe. For another easy meal, check out my One Pot Pasta or if you are looking to do something a little more flamboyant, why not make yourself a Chocolate and Caramel Cake filled with lashings of cream and delicious caramel.
Have a good one and I will be back next week with a recipe for a yummy shortcrust tart.