Ever heard of tofu noodles? I hadn’t, since here in the UK we’re sadly not as well stocked on Asian ingredients as our cousins in the US. But if you’re a fan of Vietnamese home cooking, then you better have heard about Andrea Nguyen. Her blog, Viet World Kitchen, is an invaluable regular resource that provides great cooking advice from everyday meals to special holidays like the Tet festival. Her famous debut cookbook, Into The Vietnamese Kitchen, is one of my best Vietnamese cookbooks despite that it is very meaty, simply because Nguyen’s flavours are always excellent. Just swap, say, the chicken in her lemongrass and ginger curry for mock chicken, and the effect is still brilliant.
Nguyen has the great ability to impart detailed advice on basic to advanced cooking tips whilst keeping her writing extremely accessible to any home-cook. Even more rarely for cookery writers, she synthesises her ability to impart technical knowledge with fluent, original and fascinating writing about Vietnamese and Asian food culture and history. And so I was thrilled to see recently that she had published Asian Tofu, thinking how great it would be to read an Asian/Vietnamese cookbook with predominantly Vegetarian recipes for once!
Asian Tofu is an unusual gem of a book, combining vast amounts of information about Asia, food and cooking into a rich resource with unexpected levels of depth. You might think a cook book succinctly titled Asian Tofu would be a simple affair – I’ve read tofu books that certainly are. Indeed, tofu is an ingredient derived from the humble soy bean; a crop that Nguyen notes was cultivated in China largely because it simply gave a good yield in poor soil. But this book shows you how wrong you are if you think tofu, this staple Asian delicacy, is simple. Even I found the book challenged my preconceptions, despite that I’ve been cooking with tofu for years now. The book has so much new information that it bears reading more than once and trying out a couple of recipes before you really start breaking into it and becoming completely confident, but the results will drastically improve your cooking.
Not only does Nguyen provide simple but game-changing tofu cooking tips and detailed buying guides in her introduction that I have NEVER found in other cookbooks, she also traces the foodstuff’s history in Asia, detailing its spread from country to country from medieval Japan to 20C India. This journey is then mirrored in the following recipe chapters, each section opening with beautiful photographs and stories of a particular destination that Nguyen has researched in her book, such as a tiny local tofu making shop in the suburbs of Tokyo; a Sichuanese University professor’s impromptu home dinner party; a famous Taiwanese vegan restaurant serving briny mock eel. What is fascinating is that tofu is loved differently from place to place, with the Japanese and Koreans in particular preferring softer, silken forms of mouth-wateringly fresh tofu garnished simply, whereas further South in China, Vietnam and Thailand tofu is often enjoyed fried with a deliciously crispy and chewy outer layer and accompanied with vegetables and other ingredients.
Nguyen encourages the home-cook to explore all the different methods of cooking tofu, even mixing and matching different styles, with an interesting chapter opening on young second generation American Asians who are developing new ways to use tofu in Western or fusion styles, such as Eddie Huang’s ‘Tofu Hamburger’ with sweet chilli sauce. My personal favourite section was ‘Salads and Sides’, which has an abundance of highly flavoursome and fresh dishes such as ‘Spicy Lemongrass Tofu Salad’ and ‘Spicy Yuba Ribbons’.
So far I’ve been cooking up the Vietnamese recipes, such as ‘Lemongrass Fried Tofu’ and ‘Tofu and Tomato Soup’, and the results have been some of the best tofu I’ve ever eaten. Just blanching and draining the tofu, something I’ve never previously been taught to do properly, has had a huge impact on texture and flavour absorption. The next step is to follow the enticing looking guide to making fresh tofu from scratch at home, with the results apparently being akin to the difference between shop bought and home-made bread. And when that time comes I’ll be sure you update you here…
(Photos of Lemongrass Fried Tofu by Luke Walker)