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Tofu at its Finest

Asian Tofu cookbook by Andrea Nguyen

Asian Tofu cookbook by Andrea Nguyen

Tofu has to be one of the most misunderstood ingredients around. But with Andrea Nguyen’s masterwork, Asian Tofu, humble bean curd finally gets its moment in the sun.

This is a book that takes tofu seriously. Readers will find impeccably detailed and illustrated guides to making just about every kind of beany incarnation, from basic soy milk all the way through block and pressed tofu. Superb photography by Maria Caruso and others makes this beautiful enough to be a coffee table book for those strong enough to resist the wonderful recipes contained between its covers.

I was not so strong. My downfall started with an inspired recipe for White Fermented Tofu that allowed me to make the closest equivalent to cheese in the Chinese canon. Cubes of extra firm tofu are allowed to mold over a few days until they glisten with golden dots and, in the author’s words, “achieve the ‘3S’ criteria — slime, splotches, and stink.” I had attempted this recipe following the guidelines in a 1976 classic, “Florence Lin’s Chinese Vegetarian Cookbook,” but the results never quite measured up. With Nguyen’s help, though, I am now one happy person with jars of funky perfection filling up my fridge. This stuff rocks – as does Nguyen’s book.

Pan Asian tradition

In addition to brilliant recipes for basic tofu, Nguyen offers a broad section on how to put her homemade creations to work using traditional recipes from the Far East, Southeast Asia and India. Spicy Korean dishes dot the book along with gentle Japanese offerings, savory Malaysian skewers, Vietnamese street food and time-honored Chinese classics.

Contemporary takes on the humble curd include Tofu French Fries, crunchy and chewy, with delightful dipping sauces. For those who long to satisfy a sweet tooth with a semblance of reason, Nguyen provides a recipe for doughnuts made with soy milk lees (the ground-up bean leftovers from making soy milk).

Interspersed among all of these vegetarian delights are some recipes for carnivores. Crisp Roasted Pork Belly is one, its tangential relationship to bean curd being some red fermented tofu in the marinade. Not that I’m complaining; this is seriously good stuff.

Personal stories give recipes depth

In addition to the recipes, the main chapters include illustrated travelogues describing Nguyen’s hunt for traditional dishes and concepts, with the minute attention to detail that brings the people in each of these stories alive. Tales from Tokyo, Taipei and Sichuan give cultural depth to featured recipes, while local purveyors in California’s Bay Area show how these culinary traditions have taken root in new soil.

Tofu is presented quite seriously at the beginning, but by book’s end Nguyen shows a playful side in her dessert section. Recipes that look ever-so-slightly insane on the surface turn out to be insanely delectable. Nguyen suggests that her Essence of Tofu Ice Cream be topped with savory bits and pieces, like salt, sesame seeds, Indonesian sweet soy sauce and Savory Kelp Relish. I first thought, “Ew,” but now I’m a convert.

Cashew and Cardamom Fudge is a gorgeous reinterpretation of a South Asian treat, with traditional milk and sugar edged aside by a clever use of tofu and sweetened condensed milk, the final sprinkle of crushed pistachios turning this into a gorgeous finale for the finest Indian banquet.

Tofu Tiramisu is a welcome twist on a culinary cliché; firm tofu mingles with cream cheese and ladyfingers, taking on the 21st century with an Asian sensibility.

Beautiful, knowledgeable and thorough, this is the best book on tofu ever to make its way to my bookshelves. Highly recommended.

Buy Andrea Nguyen’s Asian Tofu Now!

Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney’s in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as  disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.

Top photo composite:

Book jacket courtesy of Ten Speed Press

Andrea Nguyen. Credit: Penny de los Santos

Zester Daily contributor Carolyn Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney's in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as  disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.