Tofu is fairly new to North America, but it’s really a “forever food” that dates back more than a thousand years. Most Americans know tofu as white blocks packaged in water, just as it was introduced here in the 1950’s. Tofu wasn’t very popular then, and was actually somewhat loathed for a long time. Many still misunderstood it.
For a product that’s basically just coagulated soymilk, tofu’s fairly complex, and comes in a number of forms. Let’s start with those tofu blocks. While it originated in China, I find it helpful to think about tofu in Japanese terms of momen and kinu.
Momen tofu is made by draining and pressing the tofu, with time and pressure determining moisture loss and thereby dictating the ultimate firmness. Momen means cotton. This tofu has a somewhat spongy texture; a cross-section of a block shows unevenness and the tofu feels a little rough on the tongue. In fact, a cotton cloth is traditionally used in making momen tofu, with the weave of the cloth imprinting on the surface of the tofu, another reason for the name.
Kinu (kinugoshi) tofu is not drained or pressed. The liquid stays in the tofu as it forms, resulting in a product with a custard-like, silky texture. This tofu is completely smooth and silky. Kinu means silk, and you’ll find a package of this type of tofu marked with either “kinu” or “silken” on the label. (That said, if a momen tofu-maker uses “silky” or “silken” as a sexy descriptor of its tofu, things can get confusing.)
Ultimately, buying tofu boils down to two factors: texture (momen vs. kinu, or spongy vs. silken) and firmness. Both momen and kinu tofu come in a variety of firmness ranging from extra-soft to extra-firm. Silken tofu (and the softest of momen tofu) is best for raw dishes, gentle braising, or incorporation into dressings, dips and sauces. It’s also ideal for making desserts like cheesecake and ice cream. Medium to extra-firm momen tofu is sturdier and therefore lends itself to stirring, frying, or of course stir-frying.
Going beyond the two types of block tofu (actually, in Japan there’s a third type: yaki-dofu, a firm variety which is grilled before packaging and used in hot pots and sukiyaki), there are other forms, plus various soy products that result from the tofu-making process. Pre-tofu, the soymilk itself is delicious for drinking. Okara (tofu lees) is the starchy pulp that remains upon squeezing the soymilk out of the ground soaked soybeans. You can use this in various Asian dishes or as an ingredient in veggie burgers. Another byproduct is yuba: the tofu skin that results from heating the soymilk to make tofu. Also available dried, it has many cooking applications. And then there’s a variety of dried, smoked, and fried tofu, as well as tofu pudding.
You can find tofu blocks and other soy and tofu products at Seattle’s tofu stores. These makers sell tofu blocks made daily, which means a grassier flavor (as compared to sourness, a sign of aging). Your support benefits the local tofu-maker. And it benefits you, as tofu is high in protein, calcium and potassium while low in cholesterol (none, though that changes if you fry it!) and cost.
Thanh Son is a Vietnamese tofu-maker doing a bustling business. If you’re looking for blocks of tofu, they sell one type: a fairly firm large loaf. You’ll find these wrapped and likely warm on a central table of products that also includes containers of soy milk, plain or sweetened. Nearby is a “buffet bar” of many flavors of fried tofu (try the lemongrass-chili) that you bag yourself and buy by the pound. You can also try their tofu in a delicious banh mi as part of their variety of $3 sandwiches. Also look for tofu pudding with ginger syrup.
Northwest Tofu is a Chinese tofu store and restaurant. A lone cooler contains a surprising number of tofu products, ranging from tofu puffs (delicious in laksa), fried tofu, tofu skins (try them pan-fried in the restaurant, served with sweet and sour sauce), five spice dry tofu (the only place to find it fresh in Seattle; it’s chewy and nice with noodles—though there’s also a product called tofu noodles!), deep-fried tofu pockets (great for soups, or stuffing with rice to make inari), and even tofu they call veggie chicken as a meat substitute. You might have to ask for the tofu blocks, which come medium firm and soft. The soft tofu (very close to silken, and therefore popular with the Japanese community) costs $2 for three cubes and like goldfish comes in plastic bags full of water. Soy milk is available until it sells out, usually at lunchtime, and there’s tofu pudding—used by Koreans to put in chigae stews, and available in a sweet or savory preparation in the dining room.
You can find Thanh Son products at almost all of local major Asian grocery stores (such as Uwajimaya, H Mart, Viet Wah, Central Market and 99 Ranch Market), while Northwest Tofu sells at Asian Food Center and Uwajimaya. Further your tofu education at stores like Uwajimaya, which sells tofu from pre-product (soymilk) to byproduct (okara and yuba), and also stocks soft to extra-firm Mori-nu Silken Tofu from Morinaga in unrefrigerated boxes that boast a long shelf life. I like the silken variety (preferably fresh from Northwest Tofu) when eating tofu “raw,” topped with salted kombu or as hiya yakko topped with green onion, ginger and soy sauce.
But, ultimately, choose the type of tofu you like best. Ma po tofu is perhaps my favorite food in the world (far from a vegetarian, I love the way tofu plays with ground pork, and I’m a spice fiend), and I’m happy to have the dish with either momen or kinu tofu. After all, variety is the spice of life.