Tofu Haz a Flavor

Tasting the wares of three local soybean grinders, we discover: Fresh is better.

Last week, I caught a commercial for soy milk in which a group of middle-aged women stand around a kitchen island, daring one another to drink glasses of soy milk as if they were spiked with LSD. One heroine finally takes a gingerly sip and then smiles, relieved, and guzzles the rest. Self-congratulation ensues: Wow, it tastes just like real milk! Commercial soy milk, with its stabilizers and its antiseptic packaging, is designed to be a dairy substitute. The half-gallon jugs of "soybean drink" lined up behind the counter of Thanh Son Tofu on 12th and Yesler are not: For one thing, half of them are tinted green to show they're infused with pandan leaf—a subtle but enticingly nutty flavor that some call the vanilla of Southeast Asia. Second difference: When the woman at the counter hands me a jug of plain and a jug of sweetened, I almost drop them—they're the temperature of hot cocoa, evidently bottled a few minutes ago. I get a flash that somewhere in back of the tofu factory and storeroom, Vietnamese women wearing hairnets and plastic gloves are squeezing rhythmically on 3-foot wobbly soy teats. Back at the car, there's no waiting for the milk to cool down. So I screw off the lid of the sweetened and take a swig: The smell is chalky, vegetal, the aroma of a fresh package of tofu when you open it up. And while Thanh Son has added a little sugar to the drink, it's far from Nesquik, and it washes down creamily. Every red light on the trip home signals time to take another gulp. In my neighborhood QFC last week, it took five minutes of hunting around before I found boxes of tofu in the deli section, next to the presliced bologna and underneath a shelf of molded Jell-O salads. The location seemed to sum up tofu's rep among Westerners, who mostly spot soy substances lurking in ingredient lists or starring in vegetarian stir-fries. Asian cooks, however, prize tofu not just for its protein content and cheapness but for the sweetness, soft vegetal notes, and creamy texture of the freshest stuff. And you can find the freshest stuff, straight off the (tofu) presses, at several Seattle businesses that manufacture it for local restaurants and grocery stores:Thanh Son Tofu, Chuminh Tofu, and Northwest Tofu. Buying tofu from the source makes you doubly green. Not only are you eating less meat, you're buying local. All three tofu factories I visited sell a number of the same products: soy milk, fresh tofu, tofu pudding, and fried tofu. Each of them has its own strengths—and all of these products taste better than the shelf-stable stuff. Making soy milk and tofu in the same facility makes sense, because the two foods emerge from the same process. Dried soybeans are soaked in water until they begin to soften. Then more water is added, and the beans and liquid are finely ground and strained. The opaque white liquid produced is then boiled for a short period to make it more digestible. At this point, the factories pour off some of the soy milk and bottle it. Into the rest they stir a coagulant like calcium sulfate or seaweed extracts—the type of coagulant used can determine how firm or how creamy the tofu is. Pretty quickly, the solids begin coagulating into loose curds, which are scooped into large molds and either left to set (for "silken" tofu) or pressed into firm cakes. Comparing brands of soy products is a little like choosing your favorite shade of off-white paint—which is to say, if you're planning to hang a lot of pictures, "clotted cream" and "aged bone" will do equally well—but if you close your eyes and turn off the radio when you're tasting tofus, distinctions between the brands do emerge. For example, Thanh Son's sweetened soy milk was the creamiest of the bunch, with cooked-bean notes that gave its flavor heft, compared to Chuminh's more delicately chalky, almost mineral nose. Both made Northwest Tofu's soy milk taste anemic. Since I couldn't imagine that farmers in Hoi An were ordering nonfat vanilla soy lattes back in the 14th century, I asked Peter Kuang, owner of the International District's Green Leaf Restaurant, how soy milk was drunk in China and Vietnam (Kuang's heritage is Chinese, his wife's, Vietnamese, and the couple has traveled both countries). He said that it was often a breakfast drink, served either cold or warm—which I prefer—often with unsweetened doughnuts for dipping. Kuang and I also talked about why he chose Chuminh's firm tofu to use in his restaurant. "We've been tasting around," he responded, "and the reason we choose it is for its consistency when we grill it. When you taste Chuminh's, it's very soft and moist but doesn't break." When I tasted three different brands of fresh firm tofu side by side, first raw and then stuffed with ground shrimp and steamed, the sweet-cream flavor of Chuminh's won me over. With more body than Northwest Tofu's version but not the almost gritty density of Thanh Son's, Chuminh's tofu held together during cooking yet retained its smooth texture at the center of each piece. (Note: I bought Chuminh's products last week at its cramped Rainier Valley location, but the factory is in the process of moving to much larger digs in SODO; your best bet is to find the products at the Viet Wah markets at 1320 S. Jackson St. or 6040 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.) Many recipes call for tofu to be deep-fried before cooking. Frying firms up the exteriors of each piece so it holds together while being sautéed or braised. Also, paradoxically, the crust soaks up more of the sauce. All three manufacturers sell pre-fried tofu cut into different shapes and sizes. I made three identical batches of tofu with broccoli and ate them alongside one another. Thanh Son's fried tofu proved so crumbly and greasy that I only ate one piece. Chuminh's fried squares were a little too oily and too compact. Here, Northwest Tofu's puffy golden triangles came through—they cooked up spongy yet not oil-saturated, with a discernible crust and a custardy core. Also worth noting: Northwest Tofu sells the broadest variety of tofu products of the three manufacturers, from soybean "skin" to pressed, marinated tofu with the rubbery density of chicken breast meat. You can preview all the products at the store's restaurant by sitting down for a Northern Chinese breakfast of tofu, dumplings, and soy milk with Chinese doughnuts. The last product I compared was the three brands of tofu "pudding," an unstrained tofu so loose that it begins breaking down into curds and whey as soon as you touch your spoon to its surface. To me, the appeal of Thanh Son's smooth custard, which comes with a ginger syrup to flavor it, is how the tofu is a silky, jiggling substance that quickly melts away. Next to it, Northwest Tofu's custard came off as thin and Chuminh's as chunky. Chuminh does sell the most elaborate version: a pint-sized tub of grass-colored, pandan-scented custard packaged up with separate tubs of ginger-infused syrup and salted coconut milk for spooning over top. If you're curious to taste the absolutely freshest soy pudding in Seattle—one that may change your image of tofu as healthful, bland nothingness—you'll have to drive down MLK on a weekend morning to Joy Palace. This Cantonese seafood restaurant has Seattle's most underappreciated dim sum: food that's as good if not better than 90 percent of the restaurants in the ID; servers ready to rush back to the kitchen to hunt down any kind of dumpling you can't see on the carts; and a big wooden tub that circles the room on the hour, making stops at almost every table. At each stop, the tub's minder lifts up the lid and carefully uses a shallow, flat-bottomed ladle to flake off sheets of just-curdled pudding, slowly layering them into a glass bowl until they quiver at its rim. Then she squirts a potent ginger syrup over the top and hands the bowl over. You slowly lower a soup spoon into the bowl to capture chunks of the warm custard, which dart away from the spoon like minnows, and bring the custard to your mouth. A whiff of spice, the perfume of green pods swelling in a sun-drenched field, and a sensation on the tongue like the reflection of clouds passing over a lake...By the time you close your mouth to savor it, it's gone.

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