Raise a Stink

With a name like “stinky tofu,” the deck is already stacked against this polarizing snack. Granted, the title is entirely well-earned, accurate if somewhat blunt, and not merely a result of cultural misunderstanding. The aroma will hit you a block away, wafting through night markets like a pungent homing beacon for those in the know. Tenaciously clinging to hair and clothing, the distinctive perfume follows you home, infused simply through proximity, whether or not you chose to partake. To the uninitiated or unadventurous, the scent is not exactly one you’d want to bottle and put in a diffuser. Rotting garbage, overflowing toilets, and decaying fish are sometimes cited as less favorable comparisons, yet fervent fans will travel an hour or more to reach their favorite hawker, slinging only the most odoriferous options imaginable.

Verified vegan stinky tofu  from 家湘涼麵 in Shilin Night Market

Do you like kombucha? Okay, then what about blue cheese? If you can stomach that, how do you feel about durian? Funky, fermented cubes of tofu is an acquired taste that may not be for everyone, particularly for western palates unaccustomed to such ripe stank. Though most flavor is discerned through our olfactory experience rather than our taste buds, the best renditions taste relatively mild in contrast to the assertive, pervasive stench.

Before sniffing out this controversial staple, be forewarned that most stinky tofu (written as 臭豆腐 or chòu dòufu) is not vegan. Traditionally fermented in a brine made with spoiled milk, fish innards, and/or dried shrimp, this “secret sauce” tends to be a closely guarded family secret, never to be disclosed under threat of death (or disownment.) In Asia, if you don’t speak the language fluently, your best bet is to start at dedicated veggie or Buddhist establishments. In the US, where dietary restrictions are the norm rather than the exception, you should be able to discern if there are any dairy or seafood additions, if not a full list of ingredients.

Texture is almost as critical as the infamously musty, gamey taste. Preparations run the gamut from practically raw to fried within an inch of their lives, but my favorite sort is deep fried, resoundingly crunchy on the outside, firm and meaty yet almost silky on the inside. The softer the tofu, the funkier the flavor, so it takes a bold eater to spring for those barely steamed squares instead.

Eating stinky tofu in Taipei, as is typically served in a plastic bag with wooden sticks

Condiments play an essential role in taming this tofu, each seasoned with an equally heavy hand to provide sufficient contrast. Fiery hot sauce and kimchi, sharp black vinegar, sweet and salty pickled vegetables, and crunchy garlic are all common and all highly recommended. Intense, bold flavors envelop your entire consciousness, punching harder with every subsequent bite, demanding your full attention from start to finish. It’s no passive grab-and-go snack, but a noteworthy event, even if it becomes a daily indulgence. .

In China and Taiwan, stinky tofu is classic comfort food, cheap and satisfying, great with (or after) a few drinks, and readily available all day, any day.

Stinky tofu from Dragon Gate Bar & Grille in Oakland, CA

Close your eyes, take a big bite, and breathe it all in. You may love it, you may hate it, but everyone should try stinky tofu at least once.

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Noodling Beyond Pho

Plumes of stream erupt in the dining room as waiters hurriedly scuttle oversized bowls from the kitchen to waiting eaters. Each one large enough for a small child to bathe in, filled to the brim with boiling hot broth and vermicelli noodles, each portion is like a self-contained bottomless buffet. No appetite can rise to the challenge, despite the compulsively slurpable soup, explosive with fresh chilies, redolent with bright lemongrass and fresh cilantro. You’d think this wildly popular order was something highly recognizable like pho, but you’d be wrong. Bún riêu, Vietnamese crab noodle soup, is the worst kept secret that the Western world is just catching onto.

Complicated to prepare, most recipes lay claim to over two dozen components for the soup base, let alone the additional garnishes that finish each bubbling cauldron. Given that difficulty and the expense of such luxurious ingredients, Bún riêu would typically be reserved for special occasions, but that distinction has faded with increased prosperity and accessibility. Still, if you’re hoping for a meatless facsimile when dining out, you’d be more likely to get struck by lighting on the way out to the restaurant. Few chefs see vegetarian alternatives for the distinctive texture and flavor of fresh crab… But they’ve clearly never experienced fresh yuba.

Since dreaming up this sweet-and-sour brew, I’ve come to realize how much more potential there is to play with substituting jackfruit, simmered until meltingly tender, should Hikiage Yuba remain out of reach. Standard tofu puffs, found in most Asian markets, can stand in for the more highly seasoned nuggets as well. Worst comes to worst, should all grocery stores fall short, you could simply saute some standard firm tofu until crisp on all sides and toss it into the broth. The only mistake here would be thinking that pho is the only spicy noodle soup to savor, without getting a taste of this hot rival.

Yield: Makes 4 - 6 Servings

Bún Riêu Chay (Vegetarian Vietnamese Crab Soup)

Bún Riêu Chay (Vegetarian Vietnamese Crab Soup)

Vietnamese crab noodle soup has flavors that rival the more commonly known pho, but rarely offer meatless alternatives. This one uses tender tofu in different forms to create a compulsively slurpable soup, explosive with fresh chilies, redolent with bright lemongrass and fresh cilantro.

Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Total Time 1 hour

Ingredients

Soup Base:

  • 2 Tablespoons Coconut Oil
  • 2 Medium Shallots, Diced
  • 2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
  • 3.5 Ounces Fresh Oyster Mushrooms, Roughly Chopped
  • 1 (14-Ounce)Can Diced Tomatoes
  • 1/4 Cup Pineapple Juice
  • 2 Tablespoons Vegan Fish Sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon Light Soy Sauce
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
  • 4 Cups Low-Sodium Vegetable Stock

Toppings:

Instructions

  1. Set a large stock pot over medium heat on the stove and begin by melting the coconut oil. Once shimmering, add the shallots, garlic, and mushrooms, sauteing until aromatic and tender.
  2. When the vegetables begin to just barely take on color, introduce the tomatoes and pineapple juice, scraping the bottom of the pan to make sure nothing sticks.
  3. Simmer for about 10 minutes before adding in the vegan fish sauce, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, and vegetable stock.
  4. Cover and simmer for another 20 – 30 minutes for the flavors to mingle and meld. The soup base can be made up to 4 days in advance, when properly cooled and kept in an airtight container in the fridge.
  5. To serve, simply divide the noodles, yuba, and tofu nuggets equally between 4 – 6 bowls, depending on how hungry you and your guests are. Top with a generous portion of broth, and pass around the crispy onions, mint and/or basil, scallions, and bean sprouts at the table, allowing each person to garnish their bowlful as desired. Slurp it up immediately, while steaming hot!

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

6

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 276 Total Fat: 10g Saturated Fat: 5g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 4g Cholesterol: 3mg Sodium: 181mg Carbohydrates: 46g Fiber: 16g Sugar: 6g Protein: 11g

Yo, Soy

Though still a rare delicacy outside of most Asian cultures, yuba has slowly developed a foothold here in North America thanks largely to one shining example produced right in my backyard. Hodo, better known for their contributions to Chipotle’s popular tofu sofritas and now their ready-to-eat line of seasoned savories still pushes eaters to expand their culinary boundaries. Yuba, the gossamer-thin skin that forms on top of soymilk as it’s heated is very closely related to tofu, but bears a few distinct differences. Tofu-making takes soymilk and immediately mixes it with either calcium chloride, calcium sulfate, or magnesium sulfate to curdle, whereas yuba requires no coagulant whatsoever. Fragile, quick to spoil, it’s a treat that few have an opportunity to experience fresh. Most options are sold dried, to be rehydrated on demand, which obviously loses a good deal of flavor and texture in the process.

This isn’t the first I’ve shared about Hodo nor extolled the virtues of Yuba, but it’s a delicious declaration that bears repetition. There’s no need to be redundant, however, since Hodo has begun sharing the softer side of yuba that only a privileged few have ever had access to before. In the stages just prior to coagulating into consolidated, solidified sheets, there are actually a number of stages that the soybean slurry goes through, each one uniquely delectable in its own right. I was lucky enough to experience these earliest phases right when production was just barely getting underway, photographing some of the first batches for easy reference to the uninitiated.

If you should be so as lucky to get your hands on an ingredient of such superlative quality, the best (and most difficult) thing to do is not mess it up. Little is needed to enjoy the naturally rich, luscious character of young yuba. The very earliest harvest, Kumiage, is the style I savored the most, being completely unique from anything currently on the market, or available in restaurants, for that matter. Given a pinch of black salt, you would swear you were eating the creamiest scrambled eggs on the planet, yet no shells will be broken for this plant-based luxury. My favorite approach was to simply scoop out a tender mound into a bowl, drizzle with light soy sauce, and finish with a sprinkle of sesame seeds and scallions. Nothing more, nothing less. Working in concert to bring out the nutty, umami notes of the whole bean, it’s unlike any other tofu experience to which I can compare.

Deeply savory yet just as versatile as the familiar beige bricks we’re all familiar with, I was delighted to try my hand at a sweet Philippine snack otherwise well out of reach: Taho. Made of soft soybean curds and lavished with tender tapioca pearls soaked in a sugary syrup, it’s a classic street food perfectly suited for the brutal heat of summer. Glittering in the sunlight, cherry- and mango-flavored popping boba sparkle atop this unconventional take on the concept, yet it’s truly the yuba beneath that shines.

These softer stages of soy supremacy can be purchased by the general public only online, not in stores, but it’s worth going all in for a big batch and sharing the riches with friends.

The Softer Side of Tofu

No longer a foreign, slightly sinister block of bland austerity, tofu has finally come to enjoy mainstream acceptance. Many meatless meals are built upon these solid bean curd foundations everyday, whether the intention is to craft a plant-based dish or not. That sort of universal recognition has been hard won, after many years of residing only within fringe health food stores, or the odd Americanized Chinese stir-fry. Still, what most people recognize as tofu is ironically one-dimensional; firm or extra-firm dominate the shelves, and anything with slightly less structural integrity is deemed crumbly, mushy, or generally unpalatable. If it can’t get crispy or stand up to a solid saute, it just doesn’t make the cut. It’s a real shame that softer, silken varieties are thus overlooked time and again; this rendition is the truest manifestation of tofu, in my humble opinion.

In this form, tofu straddles the line between custard and curd, a savory study in simplicity. Fresh is always best, which could explain some of the hesitance towards equal appreciation. Composed of only quality soymilk and nigari, each element makes a huge impact on the final flavor. The only way to ensure a delicious experience is to make it yourself… And thanks to the convenient tofu kit offered by Morinaga (makers of the very popular self-stable Mori-Nu) that’s not nearly as daunting a task as it may sound. Everything you need is included, from ingredients to hardware.

Granted, the instructions leave quite a bit to be desired. Despite the helpful video guidance for the truly intimidated, there’s no indication of ramekin size or number of servings. Additionally, the time range is quite large, and there are no hints of what to look for when it’s done.

Thankfully, despite these shortcomings, homemade tofu is almost effortless to prepare. You only need to know how to boil water to bring your own bean curd to life. Serving up my first batch still slightly warm, embellished with a bare minimum of garnishes, the experience is downright ethereal. So soft, it practically dissolves on the tongue. Delicate, in texture and flavor, such a product would be impossible to transport or preserve, which is why it far surpasses anything you would find sold in stores. Not aggressively beany but gently nutty, earthy in flavor, it’s the antidote to the super salty, pre-seasoned packs that are simultaneous gaining in popularity.

The beauty of this format is that it can just as easily be dressed up for a sweeter sensation. Topped with adzuki beans gently stewed in brown sugar, my fresh tofu created the perfect creamy base to support this healthy treat.

If you’re still craving something with a bit more of a bite, never fear. It’s just as simple to craft curds with greater density by pressing out some of the water. Rather than pouring the hot soymilk into a serving vessel, let it chill out in the provided mold lined with cheesecloth. After a mere hour or two, you’ll have something primed for slicing. Reminiscent of traditional cheese-making, I couldn’t resist the urge to season mine like feta and toss the cubes into a summery salad of leafy greens, fresh peaches and corn. The results were predictably spectacular.

Although considerably more fragile than mainstream options, the beauty of making your own tofu from scratch is the possibilities for bolder flavorings. Stirring in a healthy dose of sriracha, sun dried tomatoes, and fresh herbs instantly brightened up this particular block, no marination necessary. The sky is the limit for flavorful inclusions, so you only have yourself to blame if you still think tofu is plain and bland.

Bottom line: If you’re already on the tofu bandwagon, this all-inclusive kit will put you over the moon. If you’ve been ambivalent about those soybean blocks, it may finally win you over.

Wear Your Heart on Your Sleeve

January is upon us. The quietest month of all, a natural respite from the cacophony of holiday festivities, the days ahead stretch out like a lazy yawn. Mercifully unhurried and undemanding, it’s back to work as usual, but without the same frantic pace as before. Some unspoken understanding allows us to resume our activities with a greater margin for error. Retreating back into the warmth of our homes, insulated under the padding of thick sweaters and blankets, I used to see this as a very isolating time of year. Now I’ve come to realize that it’s just a matter of how we choose to find comfort. We’re actually all in this together, experiencing the very same nesting instinct; whether we choose to share our nests with one another makes all the difference.

Inevitably, much will be said about comfort food in the coming days, despite of the incessant push to “eat clean” or observe a “New Year, new you.” Join me in rejecting these silly slogans, once and for all. Changing your diet or exercise regime won’t change who you are. No matter how far you run, no matter how many green smoothies you chug, your essential core remains the same, and you know what? I think that’s pretty amazing.

Pardon the terrible segue here, but I just wanted to take that brief opportunity to wear my heart on my sleeve, inspired by the deeply soul-satisfying dish known as manicotti to us Americans, or “little shirt sleeves” to Italians. Such a labor-intensive pasta preparation could only be made with love and patience, both of which I’d like to believe are in ample supply as we stride boldly forward into 2017. Fitting the definition of comfort food to a T, the combination of noodles, cheese, and red sauce is one that can’t be beat… But perhaps, with just a bit of innovation, improved upon.

Chef Barry Horton of Sanctuary Bistro replaces the wheat-based pasta with savory sheets of yuba, naturally savory, toothsome, and somewhat lighter on the fork. Lithe and flexible, the tofu skins are wrapped up around dairy-free ricotta filling like crepes. There’s less danger of tearing apart hot pasta while fruitlessly burning your fingers during preparation, so even the cook can take it easy during this meal.

A perennial favorite on the menu, it strikes me as an especially appealing dinner now as we steep ourselves in the depths of winter. Soothing and familiar, yet exciting enough to pull us out of hibernation, it’s the kind of meal that makes it a little bit easier to share openly- of food, thoughts, and comfort.

Tofu Manicotti

By Chef Barry Horton of Sanctuary Bistro

Marinara Sauce:

1/2 Medium Yellow Onion, Diced
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Minced Garlic
1/2 Cup Red Wine
1 14-Ounce Can Diced Tomatoes
2 Tablespoons Italian Seasoning
2 Tablespoons Nutritional Yeast
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Tofu Ricotta:

1 Pound Firm Tofu
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Granulated Sugar
1 Teaspoon Salt
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Tablespoons Italian Seasoning
1 Teaspoon Minced Garlic
1/2 Cup Vegetable Stock

To Assemble:

10 Ounces Fresh Yuba, Cut into 3×5-inch Rectangles
Olive Oil
Fresh Chives (Optional)

Begin by preparing the marinara. In a sauce pot, sauté the onions in olive oil until translucent. Add in the garlic and cook until aromatic and very lightly browned. Pour in the wine, reduce the heat to medium-low, and let simmer until reduced by half. Stir in the tomatoes and continue to simmer for an additional 10 – 15 minutes. Add the seasonings and yeast, along with salt and pepper to taste, before transferring to a blender. Blend until as smooth or as chunky as you’d prefer.

While the sauce is simmering, make the most of your time and get started on the tofu ricotta. Add all of the ingredients into your food processor and pulse to combine. Pause as needed to scrape down the sides of the container, ensuring that everything is well incorporated. Continue blending until smooth.

To assemble, spoon about 3 tablespoons of tofu ricotta across the short width of each yuba rectangle. Gently roll the strips of yuba up like a little wrap. Sauté 3 or 4 at a time in a generous amount of olive oil, cooking until crisp and lightly golden brown.  Serve on a pool of sauce and garnish with freshly chopped chives, if desired.

Makes 3 – 4 Servings

Printable Recipe

The Good Bean

Hodo Soy – The Good Bean from Hannah Kaminsky on Vimeo.

Rarely does one have the opportunity to see first-hand just how one of their favorite foods are made, from raw material to comfortingly familiar final product, which is why my visit to the Hodo Soy factory was so extraordinary. It didn’t hurt that my guide, Henry Hsu, was so generous with his time, allowing me to poke my camera into every step of the process. For the first time ever, I took this opportunity to experiment into the realm of motion pictures, so what you see above is still fairly rough. Regardless, I couldn’t wait to share this peek behind the scenes.

You may have heard the name before, or perhaps you’ve eaten their tofu without even realizing it. Hodo Soy provides the soy base for Chipotle‘s famous tofu sofritas, but their commitment to creating innovative foods that remain true to ancient art of soybean wrangling doesn’t end there. Increasing demand has brought their firm blocks, nuggets, and yuba noodles farther across the country than ever before, turning this homegrown company into a national brand in the blink of an eye.

Consider this just a small taste to whet your appetite; Coming soon, I’ll have a more typical recipe and photo post to share, using some of those incredible soybean savories I watched come to fruition before my eyes. Stay tuned, and stay hungry!