It’s a jiggly, blank canvas in flavor and appearance. Some may think it quite bland, but the beauty of bean curd, synonymous with “doufu” in Chinese and “tofu” in Japanese is its versatility and how it completely absorbs the flavor of a dish.
Bean curd likely originated in China. The actual date is unclear, but one of several theories on its beginnings date it as far back as 600 AD, when a cook accidentally curdled soy milk by adding sea salt and seaweed.
The vegetarian and gluten-free friendly protein has grown in popularity for its touted health benefits, being low calorie and a source of all eight essential amino acids, iron, calcium, and other nutrients.
The process of making bean curd simply requires dry soybeans, water, and a coagulating agent. After the beans are soaked, boiled, and ground, they are pressed to release the soymilk. A coagulant, such as magnesium chloride or calcium chloride is then added to the milk and simmered to separate the curds and whey, similar to how cheese is made. Finally, it is pressed into cakes to release the whey. The amount of pressing determines the texture. Silken tofu requires less pressing, while extra-firm requires longer pressing time.
In the simplest of dishes, bean curd of softer texture can be cubed and brightened in flavor by a splash of good soy sauce and sliced scallions. One of the most recognizable dishes is the Sichuan dish mapo doufou. Cubes of silken bean curd and ground pork swim in a reddish brown gravy seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns and red chiles. Firm tofu is more aptly cooked in stir fries and braises since it holds more structure. It is also a main ingredient in hot and sour soup.
Several different types of bean curd at a Shanghai wet market.
Besides the standard blocks sold in markets, you can also find processed bean curd, whether it’s dried, smoked, or fermented. In its many forms, it plays in a plethora of textures and flavor nuances. Bean curd noodles are a great gluten-free substitute for the wheat version. There is even soy puff, which is a deep-fried bean curd pocket. The frying gives it a chewier texture. These can be included in soups and braises, or even stuffed.
Bean curd skin is a by-product of making soymilk. The purest form of bean curd, it is the cream or film that develops on the surface of the milk when it is cooked and does not require adding the coagulant. It is sold in dried sheets, but can also be found as tied knots, which are perfect for texture and carrying the flavor in a braise.
Considered a staple in the Chinese pantry, bean curd in all its varieties can be incorporated into a dish or play the protein in a vegetarian recipe. Look for great bean curd offerings to come at China Live.