In Portland, Oregon, in the 1990s, tofu was as common as hacky sacks and burning incense. My first experience with it as a freshman at Reed College left something to be desired. I’d ordered my go-to sausage-egg scramble at the local diner, where breakfast was four bucks. Somehow my order got swapped out with someone’s tofu scramble, and I won’t soon forget it: Gummy, falling-apart white gunk mingled with soy sausage and greens. It was the worst.
Shortly thereafter, I dipped a toe into vegetarianism, but I didn’t eat tofu then, either. (My friends coined the term “cheesitarian” to describe my all-fettucine-alfredo diet.) It’s only in the last few years—having had the most gorgeous silky tofu at Japanese and Chinese restaurants—that I’ve become determined to work tofu into my weeknight repertoire.
Melissa Clark’s coconut red curry tofu was my gateway recipe. She suggested pressing extra-firm tofu for 20 minutes to extract water and make its texture more cheese-like. And whoa, what a difference that makes: Firm tofu, when pressed, becomes a lot like paneer, the fresh Indian cheese. It’s toothsome and satisfying in a way that the silky tofu in my scramble was not. One can cut it into neat little cubes and swap it into most any Indian, Chinese, Thai or Vietnamese dish.
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Since then, I’ve experimented with various ways of preparing firm tofu. (I have yet to develop any expertise with soft silken tofu.) I’ve tried pressing and searing it, which is a great way to get a crispy exterior and get the tofu to better absorb a marinade. But on most busy weeknights I’ll skip the searing step, simply pressing the tofu in the fridge under a Dutch oven lid for a few hours. I’ll fold the result into the Indian tomato-butter sauces I make in my Instant Pot, simmering the tofu right in the pressure cooker with the lid off until the tofu is just warmed through.
Or I’ll press it, then marinate it in some combination of soy, oyster sauce, sweet soy sauce, fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, ginger and lime zest—keeping an eye on the balance of sweet, acidic, and salty—and pop it on top of rice or rice noodles. Nowadays, I put tofu in nearly every Indian dish I make, whether it’s to stretch a sauce for hard-boiled eggs masala or add protein to a spinach and corn dish that I’ve whipped up with the help of my freezer.
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Tofu is much faster to prepare than even chicken, and tends to be less expensive than meat, generally. It is arguably better for you in moderation, so I’m buying three packs of it weekly for my family of two. Now that I’ve gotten comfortable letting it star in curries and stir-fries, I have my eye on glazes, particularly this miso glaze that finishes with a sesame oil vinaigrette.
If you haven’t yet tried cooking with tofu and find the idea off-putting, consider flipping the way you view its neutral, bland flavor. Think of it more as a blank page, or a room you have yet to decorate: You get to add the palette you want. Keep it simple, to start; ginger and chiles are one way to see how tofu plays with other basic flavors. You might just end up adding it to your repertoire, too.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.
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