I’ve never really been a great fan of tofu. After I finished writing Extraordinary Vegan, just out of curiosity, I did a search to see how many recipes had tofu in them. Nothing came up. Not one single recipe. It’s not that I dislike tofu, either. I just don’t favor using it left and right as a substitute for animal products, or to be on the safe side for protein intake. I prefer it in an Asian context, where it truly belongs, in spicy dishes where its natural blandness can be appreciated. The flavor of tofu is actually quite interesting. By itself, it seems to have virtually no flavor at all, but in the right environment—like a seriously flavorful Thai curry, its subtlety comes to life and the method behind its use makes perfect sense.
I had always held this opinion—especially in the wake of Frances Moore Lappe’s “Diet for a Small Planet,” when tofu was being inserted everywhere in the counterculture cuisine of the ’60s and ’70s, whether the result was palatable or not. Forget “Tofu Stroganoff” (are you kidding me?); I thought “Tofu Scramble” was already a stretch too far. My view has always been that if you want to give up eating eggs, meat and dairy products, fine, but don’t try to fool yourself with substitutes that don’t deliver. I know this opinion is not popular among many vegans and vegetarians, who are happy to make what amounts to a sacrifice in order to spare the suffering and early death of animals. I respect that. Very noble. I just don’t think sacrifice in terms of flavor and enjoyment is necessary.
One day not long ago, I was piecing together a dinner menu, and I needed something rich, spicy, and not too labor-intensive to round it out. A nice, Thai-style curry came to mind. Whenever I had used Thai curry pastes, I had always focused on the vegetables, with tofu perhaps thrown in almost as an afterthought. Suddenly I had an idea to exclude the vegetables altogether and just make a dish that was all about the tofu. A true tofu dish. Whatever the inspiration was, I had no inkling how spectacularly delicious this combination would be.
Normally, I would sauté vegetables in a little coconut oil first, then stir in the curry paste, and then add coconut milk. The tofu would go in after all the vegetables were at a desirable point of tenderness, since it’s already “cooked,” and only needs to be warmed through. This time all I had to do was combine the curry paste with coconut milk, bring it to a simmer, reduce it slightly, and add the tofu. I cut the cubes larger than I normally would, since the tofu was now not only the star, but the sole protagonist. At the very end, I added a handful of very coarsely chopped basil and a splash of freshly squeezed lime juice. Utterly simple; beautifully elegant. I used Panang curry paste (my favorite), which along with the coconut milk, gave the dish a perfect balance of spiciness, exotic flavor and richness. This dish is so easy, it’s almost like cheating.
Tofu with Panang Curry
2 or 3 tablespoons Panang curry paste* (depending on your threshold for heat), or your favorite curry paste
2 cans coconut milk (don’t cheat yourself by opting for the “lite” version!)
1 pound firm tofu, cut into bite-size cubes (not too large, not too small)
1 handful basil leaves, torn or coarsely chopped (no smaller than half-inch pieces)
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 or 2 limes (your call)
Put the curry paste and coconut milk in a small to medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir until the curry paste dissolves into the coconut milk and the mixture comes to a boil. Adjust the heat to maintain a respectable simmer, and cook until the mixture has thickened slightly, about 5 minutes. Add the tofu and stir gently until hot. Remove from the heat and stir in the basil and lime juice. Serve at once.
Braced against the intense heat and flavor of the sauce, I could actually taste the tofu in heightened detail—the subtle, nuanced flavor of tofu itself. I felt as if I was finally discovering the true delicious experience of what tofu really is, the whole reason it has survived all these centuries, in cuisines that have so many other unique surprises to offer. I’m told that unless you go to Japan and buy tofu from an artisanal producer, you haven’t tasted the real tofu. I’m really looking forward to that!
* I use and recommend “Maesri” brand Panang curry paste. It has a very good texture, slightly wet, with a bright fresh taste, and it doesn’t have any shrimp paste added, as other brands do. You may need to go to an Asian market to find this brand, but it’s truly worth the effort. You can also order it online, but be prepared to pay three times as much (plus shipping). I got a fairly nearby Asian market to order it for me, and then rewarded them by buying every single can on the shelf as soon as it arrived. Now they carry it all the time. Capitalism is not without its advantages.