Sunday, September 28, 2008

The History of Tofu

I made tofu with broccoli and bean sprouts for dinner last Sunday night. The husband had weekend duty at his boarding school. This meant staying on campus almost the entire weekend, driving the boarders to various events and, inevitably, overeating bad food. It's a time-tested, anxiety release strategy for on-duty faculty. From his recounting, in one afternoon, he ate several slices of pizza, both washed down with soda; a large coffee; much candy; and a turkey sandwich. This may not sound so bad, but mixed with fulltime teenage contact, it put him over the edge. I intended the tofu as a counter-action to the junk indulgences.

I have a strange relationship with tofu. I buy it regularly, intending to use it in a stir-fry. But time after time, I pass it by. It sits in my refrigerator for a week, or weeks, until I finally breakdown and cook it up. I am usually pleasantly surprised with the results. But I never lust after it, as I do for a hot-out-of-the-oven muffin or a well made pasta sauce.

I first encountered the snowy white, bean cake at Siam Restaurant in Lambertville, NJ. I worked for Siam through much of the 1980s. I worked six nights a week. And nearly six nights a week, I chose to eat tofu for dinner (I was a vegetarian, of sorts, back then). Stir fried tofu with bean sprouts, that was my dish of choice. It may sound bland. It sure wasn't anything to look at, very white and gray. But when the tofu and bean sprouts were fresh, and the jasmine rice was pipping hot, it had a clean, squeaky, clear, garlicky, fish-saucy taste that I loved.

(The husband and our friends, Zoe and Neil, in front of Siam. Whenever they visit, we end up there. They like it; we like it. It's a tradition.)

Anyway, back to tofu...

Siam gets its tofu (and other Thai ingredients) from Chinatown in Philadelphia. When I worked there, I went on several of these grocery trips. The Thai subculture in Philly is small as are the Thai food stores. I recall going to one of these matchbox sized stores with Timmy, the owner-chef, and listening to his back and forth with the shopkeeper as they both dragged on Marlboros. After they caught up, Timmy started to fill his order--cases of tinned curry, coconut milk and lychee nuts, palm sugar and Thai snacks for his family- bags of miniscule dried shrimp, a fishy-smelling wad that looked like pale-pink cotton candy, and other bizarre-to-me items.

I realize, upon reflection, that I developed my first foodie inclinations at Siam. I ate the on-the-menu dishes, the aforementioned tofu and much more. But I also ate the after-hours stuff that Timmy wouldn't serve to Americans. Bowls of searingly-hot green curry thick with bamboo rods, fish ball soup, steamed chicken feet, deep-fried cubes of pork fat, winter melon soup, hard boiled eggs stewed in a pitch black broth scented with star anise, old-rice soup. Back then, I refused nothing and I only ate with a large spoon and fork, Thai style. I wanted to be one of them, a Thai authentic, not one of the customers to whom they served Americanized-Thai.

I learned a lot about cooking (and Thailand) just from watching Timmy and from talking to him about food. At one point, I even contemplated switching from the front to the back of the house. But the tips were just too good. Too bad, maybe if I had made the switch, I could make a tofu dish worth looking forward to.


Zoe said...

Please don't tell anyone, but this is my favorite blog ever! Maybe because I too, am fascinated by food and all that it means. Or maybe because you are such a good writer. Or maybe because I miss my friend Maria and this is a way to hear what's on her mind. Or maybe it's just because there is a picture of me!
My only concern is that this is good stuff and you are basically publishing it for free. But don't worry, I will buy the book when it comes out anyway, as long as I can get an autographed copy.
Really, this is such fun. Love you RiRi.

Neil said...

Tofu. I've tried and tried to like it, but I just don't. I can say it without shame. Remember hippie boy, well hippie boy don't like tofu!

Maria McGrath said...

hippie boy, yes I do remember thee. i gotta get you to eat some really good tofu; maybe that would convert you. but don't expect to get good tofu from me.