HONG KONG-- --A few weeks ago I visited with chef Mak Kip Fu, who oversees the kitchen at Tang Court in Hong Kong's Langham Hotel, one of the finest restaurants in all of Southeast China.
Among the many dazzling examples of both Sichuan and Cantonese cuisine with which Fu tantalizes his diners, a recipe for fluffy shrimp croquettes caught my eye because its binding ingredient was not potato or bread crumbs, but a more indigenous substance: tofu.
First, he pureed fresh shrimp and stirred it into the tofu, along with mushrooms and a scant few shavings of ham. After scooping up teaspoons of this mixture, he briefly steamed them and then dropped the croquettes into an oil-filled wok placed above a roaringly high flame for just a few moments of deep-frying.
Served with a sauce that was delicately flavored with crab roe, Fu's croquettes were delightfully crisp on the outside but nearly custard's consistency at their center - something like a savory creme brulee.
"Tofu is one of the cheapest but most nutritious of all of the ingredients in Chinese food. We cook with it a lot because tofu is extremely flexible," Fu said. "It can be salty or sweet. It can be steamed, fried, sauteed, roasted or grilled."
Really? This was something of a revelation to me. Up until that moment, I'd summarily dismissed tofu as one of those "I guess you have to be raised with it" types of foodstuffs. I'd tasted tofu, of course, but found it bland, unmemorable and about as exciting as beige Jell-O.
Yet in several days of eating my way through Hong Kong - a place where dining is taken so seriously it's sometimes called the World's Fair of Food - I was intrigued to find that tofu was frequently on the menu and served in tastier ways than I'd ever thought possible. Tofu is so popular, it's frequently described as "Hong Kong cheese."
Many Americans are initially unimpressed by tofu's culinary potential because they usually discover it in less-than-ideal circumstances, said John Cunningham, consumer research manager for the Vegetarian Resource Group, a nonprofit organization based in Baltimore that educates the public on vegetarianism.
"A lot of people's first experience is at the salad bar where, way off there in the corner, they have chunks of tofu that you are supposed to put in your salad. If there is one way not to eat tofu, this must be it, because raw tofu isn't too exciting," he said. "Actually, Elmer's glue probably has more taste."
But eating a bowl of plain white rice or pasta is similarly unappetizing, said Annie Wen, whose family-run company, Wen Foods, has been making tofu for generations - first in China's Anhui Province and now in Baltimore.
"It's gotten better over the last 10 years. Back then, people used to say, 'Tofu? Yuck!' " said Wen. "Now, people ask me how Asians eat it and I tell them that tofu has many varieties and textures. In fact, at Wen Foods, we manufacture it 15 to 20 different ways, not just in the white-block version most people know."
Tofu is made from curdled soy milk - a liquid rich in iron, protein and amino acids, but low in calories and cholesterol-free - that is squeezed from cooked soybeans once they're pulverized. Soybeans (huang dou or "yellow beans"), which look rather like garbanzo beans, are native to China and have been grown and processed there for at least 3,000 years, especially in the nation's southern-central region, where the soil is moist and there are temperate summers.
Also known as "poor man's meat," tofu has a recipe quite similar to those of simple cheeses such as ricotta or yogurt. After the soy milk is heated - just like cow's milk is in cheese making - salts are added that cause the soy to separate into curds and whey.
"Skin" that rises to the heated milk's surface is carefully removed and turned into yuba, which in China is used to wrap up meat and fish balls, but in the West is mostly flavored to taste like vegetarian "chicken" or "hamburgers."
Depending on how the cooled curds are drained and pressed into shape, tofu can assume many consistencies: soft, regular, firm, extra-firm and silken, which is nearly a pudding. The more tofu is pressed, the firmer it is and the more nutrient and caloric it becomes.
For many centuries in China, eating tofu has been thought to promote longevity - living well to a ripe old age being a much-honored component in traditional Chinese philosophy.
Soybean milk is considered so beneficial that Hong Kong is filled with health spas that offer soy-milk baths and massages as well as moisturizers and other skin-care products made from soy. "My mother always told me that drinking soy milk and eating tofu would make my skin smoother and brighter," said Wen.
Like any versatile actor, tofu can play both starring and supporting roles. I ate chunks of it that were deep-fried and served alongside a fiery chili sauce. I sampled thick, creamy slabs that were marinated in a bath of soy sauce and sesame oil. And it was also good when seasoned with dried shrimp or oyster sauce.
Conversely, there are many recipes where tofu nearly disappears into the ensemble - as an addition to soups or stir-fried along with vegetables or even in a dessert. (Think Tofutti.)
What I began to realize is that tofu is truly a blank canvas on which you can paint the flavors you like best. Since returning home, I've experimented with combining tofu with curry, ginger, coconut milk, cilantro, even basil and tomatoes. It can be mixed into a fruit smoothie instead of yogurt and substituted for mayonnaise or cheese in certain recipes (tofu manicotti, for instance).
In Hong Kong, however, by far the most memorable experience I had was eating mei do fu, lovingly called "stinky tofu," which is made by inoculating firm tofu with yeast, allowing it to become moldy. Then it is mixed with ingredients such as grain spirits, salt or ground chilies and fermented in clay jars.
The resulting taste is intense, but it's the odor that really commands attention. Charitably, it might be compared to a very robust blue cheese. However, it also should be admitted that other, far less pleasant olfactory sensations - unwashed gym socks, even the whiff of having stepped in something - are all there in mei do fu's bouquet, too.
For obvious reasons, perhaps, stinky tofu is not widely available, but sold only in the city's Mong Kok neighborhood.
Given how frightful it smells, when eaten in small quantities as a condiment or relish, it is surprisingly delicious. Several days I ate it alongside a large dish of steamed kale.
Yes, I ate quite a bit of tofu in Hong Kong. And though I can't promise my skin is now brighter, or that I feel I will live longer as a result, I will say I definitely feel richer now that I've learned to appreciate "poor man's meat."
For more tofu recipes, visit baltimoresun.com/taste.
three 1-pound cakes firm tofu
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons vegetable oil (divided use)
2 teaspoons dark sesame oil
2 inches fresh ginger
toasted sesame seeds
Cut each tofu cake crosswise into 6 slabs, each 3/4 -inch thick. Line a baking sheet with a double layer of paper towels. Set tofu on top. Cover with another double layer of paper towels. Refrigerate 2 hours.
In a small bowl, whisk together soy sauce, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and the sesame oil. Slice both white and green parts of the scallions into paper-thin slices, on the diagonal. Finely grate ginger. Stir sliced scallions and grated ginger into soy mixture. Set aside.
Brush remaining oil tofu. Prepare a hot fire or preheat gas grill to 500 degrees. Grill tofu until golden, 2 minutes per side. Stack tofu on a serving plate. Spoon on soy dressing. Sprinkle lightly with red-pepper flakes and toasted sesame seeds. Enjoy with vegetarians or carnivores.
Adapted from "The Asian Grill" by Corinne Trang
Recipe provided by the Chicago Tribune.
Per serving: 243 calories, 20 grams protein, 18 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 5 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 905 milligrams sodium