By: Jay Friedman – Ethnic Seattle
March 22, 2016
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.