A guy once told me in a cooking class at a local community college, “Tofu is so gross. You vegans had to invent that fake meat because you can’t eat real meat.” I was a bit shocked, but managed to respond with, “Actually, people in Asia have been eating tofu for a couple thousand years.” To which he retorted, “You’re lying!” and went off in a huff. Partially because of his obvious resistance to considering the truth as a possibility, and partially because I had some tofu cutlets that needed attention, I decided that it would be pointless to try to correct him then. But it made me realize that I actually have heard others refer to tofu as “fake meat”, and feel that it might be helpful to talk a bit about tofu.
I agree that there is such a thing as “fake meat”, and that some of it can be pretty bad**. A frozen soy patty cranked out in a huge factory out of genetically-modified (GMO) soybeans, cheese powder, dehydrated egg whites and other strange things falls into this “bad fake meat” category.
But tofu is completely different. In many regions of Asia (such as in Kyoto, Japan), artisan tofu makers are as revered and respected as master bread bakers are in Europe. Tofu comes in many different textures, forms, aromas, and tastes. Think of the vast differences among sourdough, croissants, and pumpernickel, and you’ll start to get an idea of the huge differences among silken tofu, extra-firm tofu, and dried tofu.
For those who live in the Los Angeles area that want to taste freshly-made tofu, I recommend the Vietnamese restaurant Vinh Loi Tofu in the valley in Reseda, CA. It’s a very small casual place, but the food, specifically the tofu, is wonderful. Comparing freshly-made tofu to packaged store-bought tofu is kind of like comparing canned beets to freshly roasted beets…essentially the same thing, but oh so different.
A couple of chain restaurants do a pretty good job with tofu. One is Chipotle, which is currently test marketing Sofritas in all of its California, Colorado, Pacific Northwest, and other select locations nationwide. Sofritas is organic shredded tofu, braised in a spicy, smoky marinade of chipotle and hatch chiles. PF Changs offers Tofu Lettuce Wraps and Ma Po Tofu, in addition to several other vegan options. I once asked our server there if a lot of people order the Tofu Lettuce Wraps, and she said that it’s now more popular than the Chicken Lettuce Wraps.
If you’ve tried tofu and didn’t like it, please remember that tofu is an ingredient, and few people enjoy it plain straight out of the box. Just as a plain old chicken breast can be made Italian with marinara sauce, Mexican with poblano mole sauce, Ethiopian with berebere sauce, Japanese with teriyaki sauce, Caribbean with jerk sauce, or Filipino with adobo sauce, tofu will take on the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with. If you wouldn’t serve chicken breast without a marinade, sauce or seasonings, please don’t serve tofu like that.
Future posts will cover seitan and tempeh. Spoiler alert: People have been eating seitan and tempeh for centuries, and they are legitimate foods in their own right (not some fake meat invented by vegans).
Thanks for reading. Peace and love to all who live.
** I don’t believe all “fake meats” are bad… some are actually quite good. More to come in future posts.