“Tofu,” I declared confidently at the Lotus stir-fry station after the chime of my meal swipe. Most of the time, I go for the meat option, no doubt. Not only am I a growing girl who needs a dose of animal protein, but, having been spoiled by my Taiwanese mother’s cooking, I’ve always been skeptical of American spins on tofu. After Lotus bid adieu to the winter installment of ginger chicken and tofu and welcomed in its new spring offerings, hunan pork and Yang Jiang tofu, I felt like giving Yale Hospitality’s take another chance. And I was certainly not the only one. The pile of stir-fried pork remained untouched while a queue of four Patagonia, hiking-boot clad professors formed, all waiting for Yang Jiang Tofu. Usually, one chooses tofu to avoid the line, not join it.
I watched as my bowl was assembled. The chef’s forearm muscle bulged as he shoveled the 50 pounds of stir-fry into the serving wok. “Plop,” went the generous bed of medium grain rice. “Plop,” went the stir-fry, each spoonful filled with so many different ingredients. It was like he was scraping the bottom of the sea. “Plop,” went the cold radish salad. And “plop” went three gooey chocolate chip cookies, because what else would represent the Asian American experience?
When my tooth first hit the crispy exterior of the Yang Jiang tofu, adequately battered and fried, it crackled like a rice krispy treat––an odd but welcome surprise. It reminded me of the tofu stir-fry on the Chinese dinner days in the dining hall, but with more structural integrity and a complex flavor profile beyond just “dehydrating.” I raked through the stir-fry with my chopsticks. I was surprised to identify several Chinese treasures: the Holy Trinity (garlic, onion, and scallion), black diamonds (Yang Jiang fermented black beans), and magical tiny red flakes (red chili peppers) of Chinese cooking. Altogether, the dish maintained a consistent depth of flavor while hitting me with surprising moments of umami and heat. The dish left me reaching for two, three clementines.
Though Yang Jiang tofu wasn’t particularly luxurious, well-plated, or the best thing I’ve put in my mouth, it struck a profound emotional reaction in me that I can only liken to “nostalgia.” I felt like that cut-throat restaurant critic in Ratatouille, who is transported back to his childhood with one bite of ratatouille; his heart melts and the flood gates swing open.
I first learned the diversity of tofu while following my mom around in the Chinese grocery store. I remember waiting in the refrigerated aisle at the Kan Man Market as my mom made her selections, which always took a surprisingly long time. The blocks often came bathing in a semi-clear, viscous liquid and sealed in a container like boba. Bored, I tapped each chubby container like drums, quickly running away before my mother scolded me to sanitize my hands.
My young, assimilating self often questioned: Why do we need to eat this food with the texture of a dish sponge but the taste of couch stuffing? No one else eats it. Now looking back, I think of the tofu aisle like the paint color display at the Home Depot, set along a vast gradient of firmness––from super-firm to extra-firm to firm to regular and silken. One could stand mesmerized for hours, plagued by choice paralysis.
While we mostly relied on the store-bought version, my mom undergoes the arduous process of making dou hua every year around Chinese New Year. I know it when I see the numerous types of beans soaking in mixing bowls of water, almost like a cobblestone beach. After they’ve soaked overnight, she’ll blend the beans with water, then employ me to strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve, the liquids seeping out of each pocket while the dregs dry out and harden into a Play Doh-like substance. After simmering the soy milk, she’ll add a coagulant to the soy milk, often powdered nigari (magnesium chloride), which renders the milk into a silken consistency. We’ll drizzle agave nectar and maybe even red bean soup or paste atop thin slices, or we’ll sprinkle some furikake seasoning and fresh-cut scallion for a light lunch. While my elementary school classmates were shoveling down artificially flavored and colored lime green jello from a prepackaged cup, I got straight-from-the-bean desserts.
In our kitchen, there was a tofu for every occasion. Chewy, earthy tofu skin (doufu pi) withstands the heaviest of meat braises. On the other hand, spongy tofu puffs, already deep fried and sold refrigerated, add fattiness to a steamed veggie dish. Tofu can also replace starches: springy, stretchy, and chewy tofu noodles can be tossed with crispy vegetables for a light summer salad. When fermented, tofu (specifically fu ru) gains new life as it brines in a deep-red liquid, giving sauces and stir-fries a flavor like spicy, umami feta cheese. It can even be dried (doufu gan), a high-sodium snack that is seasoned with five-spice powder and bathed in soy sauce.
In college, I grew sad at the way tofu was treated. Tofurkey is the butt of Thanksgiving jokes. No one wants to carry all of the baggage that comes with identifying as a tofu eater––grass-devouring tree-huggers, who have to stoop to tofu in the name of animal welfare. Just as popular culture views tofu only as a tasteless vegetarian alternative, so does the dining hall, baking tofu in ginormous triangular prisms or resorting to breading and frying cubes. Of course tofu gets such a bad reputation: American cuisine can’t do it right.
The food I grew up eating gave tofu value beyond a mere alternative. Tofu is a dish that can be enjoyed on its own as well as an ingredient, a flavorful counterpoint, complement to meat, and a refreshing dessert. Tofu contains multitudes.