The Wary Eater’s Field Guide to Tofu

In today’s health- and weight-conscious society, where the often disparaged tofu waits on the sidelines for the chance to demonstrate its delightful dietary dynamo, an introduction is needed for people who don’t know about the positive aspects of tofu but have heard that it is kryptonite to the taste buds.  I am certain that with a bit of hands-on, or rather “teeth-on,” exploration of this little-understood and much maligned food, their culinary horizons will be expanded to encompass the enviable opportunity to pompously exclaim, “You’ve NEVER eaten tofu?  How sad…”

Titles I considered:
 “Tofu – One Woman’s Quest for Calcium”

“Tofu – Not as Disgusting as You Think!”

“Tofu – Eat It or You Don’t Get Any Ice Cream!”

Tofu is a cool food we got from the Chinese, who have eaten it for thousands of years without ever feeling the need to ridicule each other about it. They refer to it as “the meat without bones;” in fact, it was first developed as a meat substitute for the Buddhist monks who are strict vegetarians. Tofu is a relatively inexpensive, highly digestible protein that has no cholesterol, is low in calories, high in calcium and also provides iron. People will complain that it is high in fat while stuffing the last of a quart of ice cream into their mouths. The truth is, a person eating a healthy diet is not going to max out on fat intake by enjoying a tofu entrée.

People also whine that tofu is “tasteless,” but this is precisely what gives it its versatility. It can be mixed with seasonings and baked into all kinds of shapes like “meatballs,” “meatloaf,” and “burgers,” or sautéed with just about any kind of sauce.

 It can even be used in a variety of desserts.

If it helps, think of it as eating beans – tofu is simply processed soybeans where the curd is mixed with a coagulant so it sticks together in a block like soft cheese. Picture refried beans out of a can… it doesn’t look so much like pinto beans as like brown goo, but people enjoy it. So don’t think “weird,” think “bean.”

I understand firsthand the deeply entrenched resistance to eating tofu; it has been a running gag in American culture for so long that even my own daughter is prejudiced. She’ll eat it disguised as a tofu burger or hot dog, but the other day I had her taste a really obvious piece that I had sautéed until crispy in oil and soy sauce (I only had to pay her a dollar), and she concluded, “It tastes pretty good, except I hate tofu.”

So for folks who are similarly wary of trying tofu, I highly recommend starting out with the aforementioned burgers and hot dogs. These can often be found in the frozen food section of a major grocery store, though it may be necessary to venture out to a health food store, especially in a region whose specialty dish is spelled “B-B-Q.” The burger and hot dog shapes lend credibility through their superstar status in American tradition and thus are a better bet that they’ll take the first bite if you’re going for the bait and switch approach with the kids (this technique also works on your own inner child): “Here, eat this… do you like it? It’s tofu.”

When you’re bored of this game and are ready to make a meal using raw tofu (I promise it’s far less disgusting than handling a slab of bloody meat), I recommend starting with recipes that lend themselves to best-selling vegetarian cookbook author Mollie Katzen’s wise advice on how to serve tofu to children (this includes disdainful spouses, by the way): “Lots of ketchup!!!” This harkens back to the previous suggestion of “make it at least vaguely recognizable as something they’ve managed to choke down before.” I find that “crispy with ketchup” fits the bill.

First, the intrepid chef must find the ingredient. Clever places tofu will hide: in the refrigerated section near the eggs or in the produce department near those over-priced lettuce mixes. It might be necessary to ask a store employee. I promise they won’t laugh, unless of course they don’t carry it, in which case the correct move is to laugh self-righteously back at them and say, “You don’t carry TOFU?!? This IS the 21st century, you know!” and flounce out of the store. It will be fun.

So, having scored some bean curd (buy a pound of “firm” for this), proceed to the kitchen, heat up a non-stick frying pan to medium-high, cover the bottom of the pan with about two tablespoons of vegetable oil and, while it’s getting hot, cut the tofu into “chicken-strip” sized slices. Sometimes I like to get fancy by dipping each slice in beaten egg and then in seasoned bread crumbs before cooking. Fry for about three to five minutes on one side, add some soy sauce (about a tablespoon), then flip them and sauté the other side until they are golden brown.  More soy sauce can then be added, to taste, or even teriyaki, peanut or BBQ sauce… the possibilities are endless.  The kids, of course, are liable to want ketchup.

Another easy and delicious dish can be made by crumbling the tofu, mixing in some salt and pepper and adding some minced onions, bell peppers, and/or mushrooms before sautéing (a pinch of turmeric will make it look yellow like scrambled eggs.) Just make sure the tofu is cooked until good and crispy, and a bit salty, so it goes with all the ketchup. Or try adding grated cheese and salsa after cooking for a “huevos rancheros” deal.

Mollie Katzen also suggests tricking kids by sneaking mashed tofu into mashed potatoes. This ruse may work for tiny kids who don’t know any better, or for kids who play video games with one hand and eat with the other. But most people unmask snuck food eventually, and then they’ll probably hate tofu just for spite. An honest approach is best – “It’s not your usual dead cow, I know, but it’s what I cooked, so eat it or you don’t get any ice cream.”

Freezing tofu first gives it a more meaty texture when used in any of the above recipes. They say this preparation makes the tofu a great substitute for ground beef or cubed chicken in common recipes. As far as “meat-substitute” goes, however, I find the best bet is just to make friends with a new food. The only way tofu could ever satisfy a hankering for charred flesh is if a person were a Buddhist monk. So just give it a chance as its own individual foodstuff.

And enjoy!


Filed under food

11 responses to “The Wary Eater’s Field Guide to Tofu

  1. Fun post! I actually don’t mind tofu. Can I have some ice cream now?

  2. I like the title you chose for this. In high school I had a ceramics teacher who would talk to us about all the virtues of tofu while we worked on our projects. It certainly made me curious to try the stuff. I don’t mind it.

  3. I don’t mind it either, although it seems bland to me. Sort of like turkey burgers…they’re ok, but they just don’t appeal to me like those made from beef. Perhaps I just haven’t had them seasoned correctly yet. 🙂 Are you a vegetarian, Elena?

  4. Curious C- Good idea, ice cream all around!!!

    Kween- I think I might have been turned off to tofu if I’d been introduced while my hands were manipulating a gooey squishy substance… you must certainly have an iron stomach! ha ha

    K- I’m sending you a box of hardcore, tofu-fabulousifying spices via my live-in homeland security officer. (He knows where you live.)

    I used to be a vegetarian until I hooked up with a devoted meat eater. I know that particular battle cannot be won, at least not by me, so I rekindle my love affair with bacon and here I am, a carnivore again.

  5. stacybuckeye

    I’ve had tofu in Chinese, but have never tried to make something myself. I would definitely need to sneak it in somewhere if my husband were even to taste it.

  6. Joy

    This is just great. I have to admit I have never tried it but I have no reason for that. I just never have. I’ve never had caviar either. I am going to try it. The cutting into strips and frying it in oil and soy sauce sounds wonderful. My family is very open to new things and won’t not eat it because of “what” it is.

    Thanks for this. I’ll let you know if you need to send me some ice cream 😉

  7. sherrieh

    I’m definitely coming back here as I’m looking for great ideas to use tofu. Have some in the fridge right now and wondered what to make with it. So bless you!

    Did you quilt the picture above? It’s lovely. I quilt when I have time, but have gone to making “story window quilts” … on themes that I adore instead of using curtains. Many hugs!

  8. I did make the quilt in the header… it was for my nephew who was born this past July. I would love to know what a “story window quilt” is!

  9. sherrieh

    Elena the story window quilt tells a story. I live on a ranch. I have taken a picture of the house and made applicay [sp] of the house. Then I added in my favorite things from the greenhouse to my beloved animals. I simply took a picture of them and resized the picture, then found fabric that I felt was appropriate. I then embroider some of my favorite things on it as well. Then date it in embroidery!

    I now have quilts on most of my windows. I did it because it actually adds to the R factor in keeping the heat out in summer and keeping the cold out during northern Canada winters. However, it means I now have quilt pictures facing inside our home.

    My husband’s favorite has to do with our log cabin, fishing and the lake. If you go to my website at and email me from there, then I can private email you a couple of pictures to get you started.

  10. My issue is not with the flavor saving food itself, it’s actually a miracle! It can be anything! It’s the attitude of the person bestowing the virtues of it and their lifestyle upon me that makes me think of ugly, ugly things to do with rutabagas.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with vegetarians in theory, it’s when they speak to me I tend to bristle. Again, not to lump together all people who weigh less than a David Foster Wallace book (Oh, that’s just a joke. Recently deceased wrestler and awesome gentleman, Killer Kowalski, was a vegetarian), you know how I am, people breathing in the same city as me gets pretty much the same reaction.

    I had a vegetarian writing partner who made it impossible to eat with. So I fed his fingertips to the wolverines (now there’s an old comedy reference!).

    I wrote a bit recently about my run ins with people in a healthy food store. It really didn’t help their cause. It always reminds me of a bit from a great comedian, Harland Williams:

    My friend Larry says to me,

    “You should be a vegetarian like me, you’ll be a lot healthier and live longer.”

    So I pick up the steak, I flap it in his face, and say,

    “This cow used to be vegetarian, Larry, and he’s not looking that healthy to me. So you just watch your mouth, salad bar-breath, because when all the cows are gone we’re coming hunting after you, lettuce eater.”

  11. I agree that vegetarians sometimes fall into the ex-smoker-rabidly-propagandizing, I’ll-turn-carnivore-just-so-I-can-eat-your-head category. They’re kind of cute when they foam at the mouth, though.

    I was more one of the “Euw, I’ll eat that dead meat if YOU touch it and cook it for me but I can’t stand to watch the blood dripping off onto my floor” kind of wussy vegetarians. I never craved it but if you wafted a steaming sausage at me I couldn’t resist.

    Hang on, is it better or worse that I was completely unprincipled? :/

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s