I was asked about tofu, and I know that many of my BBQ friends generally eschew tofu as a tasteless and horrifically textured food item. However, for many of the world’s population, tofu forms a staple of their diet. It is actually rather a versatile ingredient once it is understood.
First thing to understand is that fresh tofu should always have a slightly sweet taste, tofu that has no taste is old, tofu that tastes sour is spoiled. There are some more advanced tofu preparations that require some getting used to, such as fermented tofu and stinky tofu, I highly recommend avoiding these unless you have a strong affection for powerful flavors and interesting textures. Tofu will have a very faint aroma of beans, however, unless you are eating it cold, that aroma is a non-factor.
There are three textures that are commonly found in most Asian stores, ranging from soft to firm. The soft tofu is very similar to a soft custard, and is most often eaten plain, or in preparations that do not require a lot of handling. The medium texture is probably the most common in Japanese cooking and many other Asian kitchens, it is rather unique in its texture, being firm to the touch, but yielding easily to the bite, Finally, there is firm, which is much like a firm cheese. This is often the most commonly found tofu in American stores, as it mimics cheese, and this is how most Americans have learned to use tofu. There are also pressed tofu’s, these are often found as flavored tofus, and are the most common style made in American companies, these are meant to mimic the texture of meat.
The idea of using tofu as a mimic of cheese or meat is what had given tofu such a bad name for many people who were not raised on tofu. It is a terrible substitute for cheese, as it lacks the fermented qualities that cheese has, and it truly does not have the taste or structure of meat. Tofu is at it’s best, and it’s most common best, when used as an extender for a dish that if flavored with other flavor elements. Using the right texture for a given dish really makes eating tofu a much more enjoyable dish.
My favorite use is as a cooling element is spicy stir-fry dishes, which are heavily seasoned with chiles and pork or lamb. The use of a medium tofu allows the tofu to not break down and that allows it to function as a cooling element in the dish. Most Asian dishes are based upon balance, for a hot element, a cooling or numbing element is added. The most famous of these dishes in Ma Bo Dofu, which is an incredibly hot yet flavorful dish from Sichuan Province in China, which balances heat from chiles, with numbing from Sichuan pepper corns, it uses tofu to carry the flavor, while providing a cooling texture. Taking hints from that, you can build any number of dishes in which you build strong flavors, and counterpoint those flavors with the tofu. One of my favorite quick uses is to use some chopped up smoked chicken or pork, do a quick stir-fry with some greens, like Swiss Chard, then use a spicy BBQ sauce, some sugar and a little soy sauce to create a little interest, tossing in the tofu to function not unlike potatoes might.
To my sense, the key to making tofu more palatable is to understand that it is its own type of food, not a substitute for cheese, meat or vegetable, but, as a means to balance and enhance a dish. I highly encourage using the freshest product you can find and taking a small taste before using it. It should have a faint sweet taste.