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ANJUNA, INDIA — I watched a juicy, pink sun rise on the Ganges River and set on the Taj Mahal. I rode through gritty city streets in speeding auto rickshaws, through coconut-laced villages in lagging ferry boats and lurching trains. I slept in an ashram, walked barefoot through temples, wore saris and sandals and toe rings, ate dosas and thalis and mangoes and sweets.
As a vegetarian, I was thrilled with the absence of red meat in India. But I hungered for tofu—even just a little—and hadn’t found any. Not anywhere in my thousands of miles of travel here.
Near the end of my journey, I was spending a few days in sun-drenched Goa, on the western coast. One day, I rode, sweaty and hungry on a rented one-speed bicycle, along winding roads, past thatched-roof houses and loping cows and perky roosters. A new-looking restaurant, Bean Me Up, appeared like a mirage.
When I got close enough to see tables and chairs set on a patch of white sand and to hear the sexy Goa trance music seeping out of the kitchen, I stopped and found myself in an oasis of marinated tempeh sandwiches and scrambled tofu platters.
My life felt complete. I asked the owner, a blond woman named Lisa Ann Camps who spoke with a faintly British accent, where in the world she had come from.
I had to laugh. And cheer. One of the few purveyors of tofu and tempeh on this vast subcontinent is a woman from Long Island.
Hunched over a plate of grilled fish and green salad, the 37-year-old Camps told me her tale. Fifteen years ago, while living in Florida, she came to Goa to take care of an ex-boyfriend who had broken his arms and legs in an accident. She never left. And Goa, not the ex-boyfriend, was the reason. The place is India’s southern beach-resort state made popular in the late ’60s by wayward Western hippies searching for enlightenment and sunny escapism. Sitting halfway between Bombay and the southern tip of the country, it’s a mellow outpost of white sandy beaches, palm trees and resorts geared toward Indian and foreign tourists who need an escape from the crowds and commotion that define much of the rest of the country.
And if there were some necessities of life missing, well, Camps was resourceful. “There wasn’t much nice underwear here,” she says. So she started her own lingerie company, Ooh La La.
But she hungered for more. “I was a vegetarian, and there was never tofu in India,” says Camps. So she learned how to make her own soy milk and tofu. Last year, at the urging of veggie tourists passing through, she started her own factory, using soybeans imported from the northern state of Himachal Pradesh. She tried distributing her goods to restaurants but found them wary of delving into the tofu scene. So, because Ooh La La had since folded, and because she had restaurant experience from her days in Florida, she decided to open her own place and serve up the stuff herself.
It doesn’t seem right that tofu plays no part in a country where vegetarians rule. India is a land of Hindus and sacred cows and carnivalesque vegetable markets piled high with sun-warmed aubergines, tomatoes, capsicums, okra. Restaurants are even labeled “veg” or “non-veg” or “total veg”—helpful warnings to herbivores who might not want their aloo gobi sharing kitchen space with tandoori chicken or pork vindaloo. Although tofu is a staple in nearby Thailand, Malaysia, China, Japan and Tibet, it’s conspicuously absent here.
“Soybeans are not original to us,” explains Madhur Jaffrey, a Delhi-born Indian-cuisine expert in New York City whose latest cookbook, Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian: More than 750 Meatless Recipes From Around the Globe, was published this month. Soy was planted in India in times of famine, she says, and “people just didn’t take to it. They’re used to wheat, they’re used to rice.” It can be found in eastern India, however, in the state of Assam, where fermented soybean paste is a result of Far East influences. In the rest of the country, fresh soft cheese, called paneer, and yogurt, are commonly used in dishes to provide protein.
Cooking with soybeans is time-consuming—the beans can’t be used in their own form but must be fermented or made into curds and whey (soy milk and tofu). That’s seen as an unnecessary hassle in India, where, Jaffrey says, “We are not lactose-intolerant as a nation. The Chinese are allergic to milk products.”
Camps, the current apostle of tofu here, aims to change India’s current intolerance of soy. And she thinks Goa is the perfect spot from which to try to spread the topic of tofu through India.
“Goa’s like the Riviera,” she says. “All the rich Indians vacation here. It’s a great way to start.” Think of it as Bombay’s Hamptons, sans the attitude. But no longer sans the tofu.