The joy of soy

If you think tofu is a sort of reverse black hole into which all flavour disappears, think again. Overlooked, taken for granted and often despised, tofu should be seen for what it is - a healthy, affordable, versatile block of creamy, soybean goodness.

After all, it takes on the strongest flavours, adds rich creaminess to soups and broths, and provides an innocent contrast to the pickled, salted and cured foods we love.

There are lots of different types of tofu, but the tofu virgin need remember only two, most easily described as Japanese and Chinese.

The first is silken tofu, a soft, silky-smooth Japanese style available in sealed packs on the shelves of supermarkets and Asian food stores. It can be used to make sauces, dressings, desserts, or to add to soups, miso broths and stews. It cuts cleanly into slices and cubes, and purees without becoming granular. I adore it, hence the three recipes here all call for it.

Then there's the Chinese-style firm, fresh tofu, packaged in water and stored in the refrigerated section. It's cushiony to the touch, with a visible curd; ideal for stuffing, steaming, baking and stir-frying. Both are available in bewildering degrees of soft, firm, extra firm and so on - I usually go for the firm in both.

Silken tofu with soybeans and chilli

This recipe can play out any number of ways - drown steamed tofu in your favourite Asian sauce, throw some chilli and pickles at it, and you're done. Frozen soybeans are available in Japanese stores, or substitute with broad beans.

1 small Lebanese cucumber, unpeeled
1 tbsp white sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp rice vinegar
2 x 300g packs silken tofu, drained
200g frozen soybeans (edamame)
1 tbsp olive oil
200ml vegetable or chicken stock
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp hoisin or plum sauce
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp cornflour
1 tbsp Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
2 green onions, finely sliced
1 mild red chilli, finely sliced

Cut cucumber in half lengthwise, scoop out and discard seeds then cut in one-centimetre slices. Mix sugar, salt and rice vinegar in a bowl, add cucumber and leave for 20 minutes, then drain. Steam tofu over simmering water until hot.

Cook soybeans in simmering salted water for three minutes, drain and toss with olive oil. For sauce, heat stock in a small pan and add oyster, hoisin and soy sauces and simmer for two minutes. Mix cornflour and rice wine to a paste, add to sauce and bring to the boil, stirring, until sauce thickens. Drain tofu and carefully transfer to a warm serving plate. Spoon over sauce, top with pickled cucumber and scatter with soy beans, spring onions and chilli.

Serves 4 as side dish

Mushroom and tofu with beanthread noodles

CAPTION

Mushrooms, fresh and dried, and eggplant are perfect partners with tofu for a meat-free meal with gentle flavours that's still satisfying.

5 dried mushrooms
4 pieces dried black fungus
1 bunch broccolini, cut into short lengths
250ml vegetable stock
3 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp hoisin sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
5 cm knob ginger, cut into matchsticks
1 red chilli, finely sliced
1 garlic clove, finely sliced
100g fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced
2 small, slim eggplant, halved lengthwise and cut into 1 cm slices
100g beanthread vermicelli
100g silken tofu, diced
2 tbsp coriander sprigs

Soak dried mushrooms and black fungus in hot water for at least 30 minutes, then drain, discard stalks and finely slice. Cook broccolini in simmering salted water for three minutes and drain.

Heat stock, soy, hoisin sauce and sesame oil with ginger, chilli, garlic, dried mushrooms, black fungus, fresh mushrooms and eggplant, and simmer for 10 minutes or until eggplant is tender. Cook noodles in simmering salted water for one minute or until just tender, then drain. Add broccolini and tofu to mushrooms and heat through. Serve with noodles and top with coriander and your favourite chilli sauce.

Serves 4

Seafood, tofu and pickled vegetable salad

CAPTION

Fresh prawns and ocean trout team with creamy cubes of silken tofu and loads of crunchy, sweet, pickled vegetables.

1 carrot, peeled
2 green onions, trimmed
1/2 a red capsicum, flat sides, trimmed
1 mild red chilli, halved and deseeded
2 x 200g fillets ocean trout, skinned
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and pepper
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp rice vinegar
300g silken tofu, diced
8 to 12 tiger prawns, cooked and peeled, tails intact
4 tbsp coriander sprigs

Slice carrot lengthwise, and cut each slice into fine matchsticks, or julienne. Finely julienne the green onions, capsicum and chilli. Soak vegetables in a bowl of iced water to crisp for 15 minutes. Brush ocean trout with one tablespoon olive oil and sear in a hot pan for four minutes on each side or until cooked but still pink inside.

Rest for 10 minutes, then pull apart into bite-size pieces and season well. Drain vegetables and shake dry. For dressing, whisk together soy sauce, sesame oil, honey, rice vinegar, sea salt, pepper and remaining olive oil. Add julienned vegetables and diced tofu, and lightly toss. Arrange on four plates with prawns, ocean trout and coriander, drizzle with remaining dressing, and serve.

Serves 4

The story The joy of soy first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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