Tofu is something people either hate like the plague or love beyond all comprehension. Those who hate it can’t stand the fact that it’s bland and, as such, serves as little more than an extender to be used in lieu of meat. However, those of us who do like tofu appreciate its delicate flavor and the way it works so well with a variety of seasonings and prepared in so many ways. Besides, it’s one of the healthiest – and most reasonably priced – foods you can have.
The national cuisines of China, Japan, and Korea have elevated the use of tofu to an art form. In China, cubes of semisoft tofu are cooked with pork and chilies in the delightfully incendiary dish known as ma po tofu while fried tofu puffs are stuffed with a seafood-based forcemeat and served as dimsum.
Koreans cook tofu with soy sauce and garlic to make dubu choerim. Tofu is also one of the main attractions in soon dubu, a deliciously spicy stew that also features clams or oysters – very good on rice, I must say.
As shown in the snapshot at the top of this post, the Japanese have ways of serving tofu to suit the season. The hiyayako-dofu from Ajisen shown above is a dish of thickly sliced silken [kinugoshi] tofu covered by a mound of crushed ice. This always comes with a small dish filled with spring onions, grated ginger, and katsuoboshi [dried and salted bonito fillet] shavings. Soy sauce is mixed into this savory mix and the tofu slices dipped into the resulting sauce. The spicy-salty tang of the sauce goes marvelously with the somewhat bland tofu; very nice and absolutely refreshing given the summer heat.
Cold weather, on the other hand, brings its own tofu delight: agedashi-dofu.
The trouble with agedashi-dofu, however, stems from the fact that it is so easy to do wrong. In many Japanese restaurants, the tofu is either over-breaded or turned into some greasy bit that barely seems edible. Sometimes, the sauce is too sweet or it’s turned into a watered-down broth that doesn’t taste like anything in particular at all.
Sachi at the Araneta Center has a tip-top version of the dish. You get three huge pieces of kinugoshi-dofu, all lightly breaded and properly deep-fried into pale golden pillows that are potato-crisp crunchy on the outside and meltingly soft on the inside. The sauce is another delight as you can actually taste the mirin [sweet Japanese cooking wine] and dashi [bonito stock] used by the chef. Plus, while you just get grated daikon radish in most agedashi bowls, this one gets a kick out of daikon grated with – get this! – fresh chilies! The resulting combination is a wonderful mixture of fresh flavors and textures. Yes, I know it costs a bit more than the usual agedashi-dofu, but it is definitely worth every centavo.
So, is tofu really as boring as most people say it is? Nope, definitely not in my opinion.