Do you tofu?
If there isn’t a block or shred of soybean curd in your refrigerator right now, chances are it crosses your plate only in restaurants, or not at all. Vegetarians, vegans and dietitians know that tofu is high in protein, iron and calcium, has little saturated fat and may help lower cholesterol. Plain tofu is mild, easy to cook with and relatively inexpensive, has a reasonably long shelf life and is more readily available in more forms than it was 16 years ago, when the research firm Soyatech began tracking tofu sales in the United States.
Omnivorous home cooks might be equally aware of tofu’s charms, but they are not captivated. The same blandness and spongelike qualities that make tofu so versatile also make it a tough first-time sell. Packaged, it comes in dull beige or white rectangles. You can find it fresh, but there’s something less than appealing about watching portions of it get cleaved from open buckets of milky liquid — for some American sensibilities, anyway.
With food prices causing pain at the checkout counter and a growing movement to improve the American diet, there ought to be more tofu love. Yet U.S. tofu sales numbers suggest otherwise, falling from a peak of $265 million in 2003 to $244 million in 2007. Studies on consumer attitudes about nutrition, health and soy foods, sponsored by the United Soybean Board, show that Americans are much keener about soy milk, soy-based meat substitutes and soy snacks.
An attitude adjustment could start with the foods featured in “Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China.” The new memoir by Jen Lin-Liu, an American-born journalist in Beijing who started her own cooking school there last year, includes 29 recipes, several of which are simple tofu dishes.
“Think of it as cheese. It’s really like the cheese of China, where people have been eating it for 4,000 years,” she said.
She came up with ways for American cooks to work a little more soybean curd into their weekly repertoire:
◆ Substitute shredded tofu for the pasta in a favorite pasta salad recipe.
◆ Stir soft tofu into scrambled eggs for a creamier texture without adding much fat.
◆ Cut a block of soft tofu into bite-size pieces. Combine with chopped scallions, a sourish vinegar such as black or apple cider vinegar, sesame oil and a little sugar. Serve as an appetizer or snack.
◆ Saute or shallow-fry sticks of tofu instead of breaded mozzarella sticks; serve with dipping sauces.