If you’ve been pounding back steaks, chops, and burgers all winter in response to an animal need to ingest massive amounts of meat and fat, now’s the time to lighten up your diet. And what better way than by concentrating on meat’s opposite, tofu?
Wait a minute! Isn’t bean curd the blandest substance on earth? Fit for vegetarians and dyspeptics, who treat it as a main course only because there’s almost nothing else? Not on your life! In its myriad forms, bean curd is the equivalent of the diverse flesh of animals, with a protein content of about half what meat has, a similarly high iron content, and a lot less fat. Like meat, it can serve many roles in cooking.
But what the hell is it anyway? Tofu was invented during the Han Dynasty around the time of Christ, when a scientific team at the emperor’s direction went looking for new medicines. They discovered that by crushing, soaking, and boiling dried soybeans, a milky liquid was formed that could be coagulated by adding a variety of starters, including vinegar, hydrated calcium sulfate, and magnesium chloride. The resulting flocculent substance had a pleasing mild flavor, and, as the years went by, dozens of culinary uses were found for it. Eventually, it was welcomed into other Asian countries, often transmitted along with East Asian forms of Buddhism.
If you want to experience the excitement of that original Chinese scientific team, seek out those restaurants that make their own bean curd and serve it fresh. Dim sum specialists like East Harbor Seafood Palace (714 65th Street, Brooklyn, 718-765-0098) make it in a big crock with wooden staves, then wheel it around the dining room. When you order a bowl, a sweet ginger syrup is poured over the top. Japanese restaurants Hibino (333 Henry Street, Brooklyn, 718-260-8052) and En Japanese Brasserie (435 Hudson Street, 212-647-9196) offer fresh tofu made just hours before it’s served, and you’ve never tasted anything so fresh. Trickle on the light soy sauce!
The city also boasts a string of Korean tofu houses that treat the newly made product in remarkable ways. In contrast to the Japanese, who usually like to leave it plain in its icy elegance, Koreans load on the sesame oil and chile peppers—and sometimes the meat, too, so watch out, since our purpose here is to suggest vegetarian dishes. BCD Tofu House (17 West 32nd Street, 212-967-1900) in Koreatown specializes in the soupy tofu called soon dubu served with a variety of add-ins, including pickled vegetables and a kim chee that will really clear your sinuses. Sunnyside’s Natural Bean Curd (40-06 Queens Boulevard, Queens, 718-706-0899) is every bit as good. Both places serve a free selection of mainly vegetarian pan chan before and during the meal, along with big bowls of white or brown rice.
For tofu just a bit more mature, yet still in its simple, jiggly state, check out the tofu burger at Black Shack (320 Lexington Avenue, 212-213-0042). I usually deplore all the prefab and overprocessed patties that masquerade as veggie burgers, but this fabrication is great, a pillowy tofu square that has absorbed smoke from flame grilling and emerged with black stripes just like a normal hamburger, every bit as flavorful and an eerie shade of dusky white.
Also deserving prizes in the creative uses of curd is Calexico Carne Asada (122 Union Street, Brooklyn, 718-488-8226, other locations), which features a tofu asado taco smeared with great fresh salsa, while old-timer Spring Street Natural Restaurant (62 Spring Street, 212-966-0290)—a place left over from downtown’s hippie days—cuts a tofu cheesecake that’s inspired such august imitators as Nobu. Bean curd can also be transformed by marinating it in lemon and baking it, which is the way Angelica Kitchen (300 East 12th Street, 212-228-2909) makes its tofu sandwich so delectable. The parsley-almond pesto doesn’t hurt, either.
At this point, things start getting a bit gnarly. There’s a product sometimes known as Chinese cheese that involves fermenting curd, sometimes for weeks, until it has the vomitous odor of durian. You may not believe this, but in spite of the smell, the flavor is perfectly tolerable, even good, especially when served with a spicy dipping sauce or topped with an equally pungent wad of kim chee. This aged curd is available in most Taiwanese restaurants, but you have to ask for it. Request “stinky tofu” in Bay Ridge at Island of Taiwan (6817 Eighth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-680-0033) or in Flushing at Main Street Imperial Taiwanese Gourmet (59-14a Main Street, Queens, 718-886-8788).
Indeed, using tofu as a raw material, or extracting by-products during its production, results in many strange and inspired forms. One of the best is tofu skin, also known as yuba, which is the solid matter that floats to the surface before the bean curd coagulates. The skins are useful as wrappers in dim sum, which you can see rolling by at some of the city’s better dim sum parlors, including Royal Seafood (103-105 Mott Street, 212-219-2338) and Jin Fong (20 Elizabeth Street, 212-964-5256). Bean curd sliced thin and deep-fried is often used to make pouches in Japanese cooking. Stuffed with vinegared rice, it’s most commonly seen in raw fish assortments at East Village sushi bars like Sapporo East (164 First Avenue, 212-260-1330), or for carryout at Ennju (20 East 17th Street, 646-336-7004).
Chinese vegetarian restaurants like Buddha Boddhai (5 Mott Street, 212-566-8388; 4296 Main Street, Queens, 718-939-1188) are great places to explore bean curd’s varying propensities. At either the Manhattan or Flushing branches you’ll find cubes of curd stuffed with eggplant and peppers and fried, poached tofu in an egg-white sauce, and curd in clay-pot casseroles with aromatic spices. There’s even a version of the Sichuan classic, ma po tofu, made with ground-meat substitute that isn’t half bad.
But by far the most exciting usage I’ve lately stumbled on is bean curd compressed into flat noodles. Find these in a sort of warm salad with Sichuan peppercorns and slender Chinese broccoli at Golden Palace (140-09 Cherry Avenue, Queens, 718-886-4383), a restaurant that specializes in the Dongbei cuisine of northeastern China. At first they might be mistaken for Italian fettuccine, except even al dente noodles are wimpy compared to these. Expect to get a real workout for your jaws, and to leave the restaurant with your mouth on fire. A flaming mouth is probably the last thing you anticipated from curd.
More:Angelica KitchenAsiaBCD Tofu HouseBlack Shack BurgerCalexico RestauranteChinaEast AsiaEast HarborEN Japanese BrasserieEnnjuGolden PalaceHibino Japanese RestaurantJing Fong RestaurantMain Street Imperial Taiwanese GourmetRestaurant ReviewSichuan ProvinceSpring Street Natural RestaurantThe Island of Taiwan