In Asia, it’s very different: not only are tofu dishes not seen as a vegetarian thing, in fact, many of the dishes also have meat in them as well as tofu.
Many in the West eat tofu in Asian restaurants, but don’t cook with it at home. It will be a long time yet before Westerners can look at a block of tofu and instinctively think of several different dishes they can make from it. In fact, Westerners are still a bit scared of any homemade tofu dishes.
The problem was that in the 1970s and 1980s, when tofu arrived in the West, recipes for it published in the West merely treated tofu as a meat substitute. People were trying to make Western dishes by simply swapping in tofu, using it as a meat or cheese substitute. There were recipes such as tofu quiche, tofu hamburgers, tofu salad dressing, and tofu scrambled “eggs.” Many of the recipes turned out to be such failures that not even the person who had cooked it could be induced to eat it.
Tofu, particularly the extra-firm, which is just about all that was available, came to be ridiculed as having the texture, taste and appeal of latex; the best that was said about it was that it was boring.
The tofu dishes that foodies would start falling in love with in the 1990s would all be Asian, dishes such as Pad Thai and Chinese Mapo Tofu.
Now, new Western style tofu dishes are emerging which are built around tofu as the core, base ingredient that the diner expects in the dish, instead of just swapping it into other dishes it wasn’t meant for. These dishes are far more successful, with even foodies writing about them for the sake of — not health — but taste.
Still, most of the tofu dishes we have recipes for in the West are still primarily Thai, Chinese or Japanese, either original or inspired, rather than Western in nature.
As tofu has no taste of its own, (good) tofu dishes tend to have a lot of flavour to either act as a contrast to the tofu, or to provide flavour in the form of a sauce for the tofu pieces to absorb.
There are four kinds of tofu. You need to get the right one for the dish you are making. Recipes will almost always specify.
- Extra Firm: holds its shape;
- Firm (aka medium firm): holds its shape;
- Soft: where you want it to blend into the dish, as in Mapo Tofu;
- Silken: where you want it to blend into the dish, but also good enough to serve on its own, with a dipping sauce or sauced.
Many tofu dishes have the added bonus (for some) of being gluten free. If this is a concern for you, make sure that any soy sauce used was not brewed with wheat in the mash.