Tofu, SoHo, Sontag, and Salad
It's all right here.
WHEN IT COMES TO WINNING OVER A CERTAIN SET OF PICKY EATERS, things might have gone differently for tofu had it been given a different name. Perhaps something like “boneless, skinless chicken breast”—which is a truly horrifying name but somehow doesn’t repel this brand of American eater looking for something “healthy.” You know who you are.
But never mind. I love it just about any way you can think to prepare it, although my experience of tofu is limited by the fact that I’ve never visited China or Japan or Korea. The truth is I can’t explain my feelings for it, and I didn’t fall in love with it until I was in my late twenties. No one had ever offered it to me until then.
Back then, I was broke all the time, and unable to afford all the fancy restaurants and specialty food shops that surrounded me in NYC, where I’d arrived for a job at a magazine called Wigwag. On my first day, the editor’s assistant took me out to lunch at the fabulous Prince Street Dean & Deluca, where I made sure to order the largest sandwich available (they were all pretty small) and mentally marveled at all the culinary doors I was about to prance through in my new life as a New Yorker.
“You won’t be able to afford to eat here, though,” the assistant told me, smiling. (Sad trombone.)
I would soon find out that what I could afford was just as delicious as that sandwich, an enormous clamshell takeout container filled with broccoli and fried tofu in garlic sauce over rice, from a Chinese place that was not far from our SoHo offices, right across the street from where Balthazar would eventually open (I couldn’t afford to go there when that happened, either), and down the street from a Cuban place I’d visit for rice and beans with a fried egg on top and where I once saw Susan Sontag drinking a coffee. (I ran back to the Wigwag offices to tell everyone about my sighting; I think they felt sorry for me.)
Anyway, this tofu was perfect, with its chewy exterior that soaked up the garlic and a tender interior, the perfect foil for the crunchy blanched broccoli. It was the tofu dish that led me marching through the gates into the beautiful kingdom of tofu as if I owned the place: mapo tofu, Agedashi dōfu, tofu skin rolls, Doenjang-jjigae, Tahu sumedang. I wish I could say I have visited more spots there.
Of course, the kingdom of tofu was never really mine. I was a simple, starry-eyed gal up from the South, but I was aware enough of tofu’s essential beauty to be annoyed back then (and to this day) when people referred to it as “plant-based meat” or a “meat substitute.” The assumption being that when it was first invented and eaten, probably about 2000 years ago in China, it was as an imitator for meat avoiders rather than a wonderful original in its own right.
I’m not trying to say that tofu shouldn’t be turned into things—it’s so versatile! It can do anything! I’m just saying that it never needed or asked for the job of animal impersonator.
As Judith Thurman mentions in a 2005 New Yorker magazine piece about the ancient art of tofu-making in Japan, tofu is “an almost uniquely perfect food: low in calories, high in protein, rich in minerals, devoid of cholesterol, eco-friendly, and complete in the amino acids necessary for human sustenance.”
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