When I ask cookbook author Hannah Che what she thinks many cooks misunderstand about tofu, she doesn't hesitate. "That it's not necessarily supposed to be meaty," she tells me in a Zoom call from her Portland, Ore., home. "If you think about it, it's more similar to a dairy product because it's made from coagulating soy milk."
In other words, tofu is closer to cheese (which comes in such a range of textures) than to meat (which does not), and the more you understand that as a cook, the better your results will be. "Tofu has a range of possibilities," she says. "It's a beautiful core ingredient that's not a substitute for anything. It's delicious in its own right."
Tofu takes center stage in Che's new book, "The Vegan Chinese Kitchen," which chronicles how she came to terms with both her own cultural heritage and her desire to cook and eat plant-based food. The two had initially seemed in conflict when Che became vegan in 2015 while in college, concentrating on salads, grain bowls and the like. On one trip home for the holidays, she realized that her newfound diet was in danger of disconnecting her from her immigrant parents and the traditions they remembered - and wanted to pass along.
"It's impossible to separate who we are from what we eat, and animal products are deeply ingrained in the food traditions of most cultures," she writes in the book's introduction. "How do you remove yourself from these traditions without a fundamental sense of loss?"
Che's answer was to study. After graduate school, she moved to China to attend Guangzhou Vegetarian Culinary School, immersing herself in the rich, ancient traditions of vegan and vegetarian cooking in China, rooted in Buddhism. She emerged determined to document this cuisine and to prove to everyone else what she had already proven to herself: that eating a vegan diet can be a way to connect with Chinese culture and tradition rather than separate from it.
Tofu, as it turns out, is a perfect example. In Chinese cooking, it's seen as another high-protein ingredient (a particularly affordable one at that) worth showcasing, not something to be cooked in place of meat. And when you start to think of it that way, you learn to appreciate simpler presentations that bring out its best qualities.
A go-to tofu dish
One of Che's favorite recipes in the book is for a tofu dish that's quickly becoming a go-to of mine, too. She calls it Fragrant Dressed Tofu With Garlic and Basil, and the technique behind it - basically poaching the tofu in heavily salted water - results in an infusion of flavor that marinating will never achieve. The technique, called liangban, also firms up the tofu's texture and, somewhat counterintuitively, expels moisture inside.
"When I learned that in culinary school, I was like, 'Oh, my God, this changes everything.' Like, I don't have to press tofu," she says. "And it's actually very quick."
The second piece of this six-ingredient, 20-minute recipe is the combination of aromatic flavorings: finely chopped basil, garlic, toasted sesame oil (with its intoxicatingly nutty and smoky flavor and aroma) and a pinch of MSG, an ingredient that has thankfully been rehabilitated from the unfair taint of decades past. They help make this tofu one of those greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts recipes that I've already turned to multiple times. Since my basil plants have (finally) stopped producing as the weather cools, I've swapped in three chopped scallions instead, but the next time I head to an international market, I'll look for shiso leaves, a recommended alternative from Che that I can't stop thinking about.
I'm the tofu lover in my three-person household, but that's okay: I frequently cook dishes for my husband and foster son that include animal ingredients that I don't eat, so I'm always looking for quick ways to make protein-rich dishes that I can use to supplement the vegetables and/or grains I cook to go along with their chicken and/or seafood. Besides, if they don't want any tofu, all the more for me.
Che makes this dish multiple times a week, and when I ask her about how she likes to eat it as leftovers, she replies, "It usually doesn't last that long."
Fragrant Dressed Tofu With Garlic and Basil
Adapted from "The Vegan Chinese Kitchen" by Hannah Che (Clarkson Potter, 2022).
Storage notes: Refrigerate leftovers for up to 3 days.
1/4 teaspoon fine salt, plus more as needed
14 to 16 ounces medium-firm or firm tofu, drained and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves, preferably Thai basil, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, pressed or finely grated
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon MSG (may substitute with 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast)
Bring a medium saucepan of very generously salted water to a boil. Place a bowl of cold water near the stove.
Use a slotted spoon to carefully lower the tofu cubes into the boiling water, reduce the heat so the water is simmering, and cook the tofu until completely heated through, 3 to 4 minutes. Use the slotted spoon to transfer the tofu to the bowl of cold water and let it cool for a few minutes. (The tofu's outside surface will firm up as it cools.) Drain well and transfer to a large bowl.
In a small bowl, stir together the basil, garlic, sesame oil, MSG and 1/4 teaspoon of salt until thoroughly combined. Transfer the sauce to the tofu and use a spatula to gently fold until the tofu cubes are evenly coated. Taste, and season with more salt as needed.
Serve at room temperature or cold.
Nutrition information per serving (3/4 cup) | Calories: 128; Total Fat: 8 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 185 mg; Carbohydrates: 3 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugar: 0 g; Protein: 9 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian's or nutritionist's advice.