Types of Fresh Tofu

There is a bewildering variety of fresh tofu sold in America, made even more complex by the assortment of English names given to the product by various manufacturers. In general, the term given it is tofu (pronounced doe-foo in Chinese and toe-foo in Japanese), with the typical English names being bean curd, soybean curd, or bean cake.

The Japanese variety of tofu is extremely soft and silken and does not absorb other flavors readily. It is pleasant in soup, but it will fall apart in stir-frying, and I do not use it for Chinese cooking. If all that is available to you is this very soft variety, then you must weight it or drain it of excess water in order to make it appropriately firm. The method is very simple: First, cut the tofu carefully into cakes no more than 2 inches thick, if it was purchased in one large block. Fold a clean, dry, lint-free kitchen towel in half lengthwise, put the tofu in the center of one half of the towel, then bring the other half over the tofu so that it is sandwiched in between. Put a 2-pound weight on top of the towel, centered over the tofu (I use a small cutting board), then let the tofu drain until it has the firmness of a curd of cottage cheese, changing the towel for a dry one if necessary. The pressing time will vary anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, depending upon the softness of the tofu when you began. To hurry the process, cut the tofu carefully into smaller rectangular slices a scant inch thick if the recipe permits it, then wrap and weight it as above.

Because of the weight loss in pressing, begin with a fourth more Japanese-style tofu if you are substituting it for the firmer Chinese tofu in the following recipes. For example, if the recipe calls for 12 ounces, then buy 16 ounces.

Far easier, if you have the choice, is to begin with Chinese-style tofu, which is generally firmer and more meaty in texture than the Japanese variety, in addition to being 25–35 percent richer in protein. The Chinese types range fully from a semiliquid curd called “tofu brains” in Chinese, to a quite firm, pillow-shape sort called “old tofu” (lao-doe-foo), in reference to the comparatively long pressing. What is called for in the following recipes are the firmer among the Chinese types.

Firm Chinese-style tofu is sold several ways. In Chinatown markets, it is stacked neatly in large tubs of water or on large trays, typically in “cakes” that measure 3 inches square and about 1 inch thick, and what you choose will be bagged for you in plastic. In American markets and Chinatown supermarkets, tofu is packed in 1-pound sealed plastic tubs, in which one large block or 4 smaller, standard-size cakes are completely surrounded by water. Buy the firmest sort available. On the East Coast, a pillow shape typically indicates this variety. On the West Coast, the cakes are more consistently square, and I judge the firmness by feel, pressing my finger against the plastic coating on top of the packing tub if necessary. Firmer tofu will also look a bit different in texture from the softer varieties. The outer broad surfaces often have a creased or mat-like finish owing to the pressing, and the inner curd will show a slightly rough “grain” instead of a shiny-smooth surface.
If the Chinese-style tofu you purchase is not sufficiently firm to be cut neatly, then weight it as described above for 15–30 minutes, or until it is as firm as a curd of cottage cheese.

Do not be confused when shopping for fresh tofu by the ¼–½ inch-thick slabs of brown pressed tofu (called doe-foo-gone), which may be sold nearby. This is fresh tofu that has been pressed to the consistency of a solid Swiss cheese, then seasoned with a soy-based mixture that gives it its color. Pressed tofu is delicious shredded in stir-frys like Spicy Buddha’s Feast. It is not a substitute for fresh tofu.

If fresh tofu is unavailable in your area, you can make your own quickly and easily with a tofu “kit,” available in many health food stores and through The Soyfoods Center, P.O. Box 234, Lafayette, California 94549. The cost is minimal, the product is delicious, and to make it is great fun.