Zipped into a sleeping bag, Kindle in hand, I am ready for my nightly walk through the digital stacks. Wading through the impressive collection of e-cookbooks available from the Seattle Public Library, I choose Andrea Nguyen’s “Asian Tofu.” Unlike other recent finds—”Glorious One-Pot Meals,” “Beautiful Breads & Fabulous Fillings”—this one, while camping in and in-between European villages, is chosen for a special reason.
Westerners often cite bread and cheese as the foods they miss the most while in Asia—the inverse for me during a year and a half in Europe is rice and tofu. Finding, making, and most importantly, eating tofu, especially ‘good stuff,” is not usually possible. Andrea Nguyen’s latest cookbook is downloaded purely to assuage homesickness.
The plentiful photographs, rendered in grayscale digital ink on a 6” screen, are easily skimmed over. The lack of gloss and color forces me to rely on the taste palette etched in my memory from countless meals. Flavors such as lemongrass, fish sauce, bean paste, and chiles combine and recombine in my mind as I read the recipes like a book of short stories.
“Asian Tofu,” besides making me hungry, goes a long way in helping people understand tofu as something more than just a meat substitute. Andrea visits artisans, markets, and restaurants all over Asia in search of the story of tofu—her cookbook is rich with history, anecdotes, and over 75 new and classic recipes. She is a friendly advocate for one of Asia’s most versatile staple foods—something that I also aspire to be.
One of our first hosts in Portugal was a new vegetarian. Her kitchen cupboards were full of lentils, beans, and nuts of all kinds—but no tofu. When I asked her about it, she said she wasn’t sure if she liked tofu; she just didn’t know what to do with it.
First, a wave of pity washed over me. A lifetime without tofu? Then I was flooded with compassion. I wanted to defend, to elucidate, to guide. I wanted to introduce her to one of my favorite foods. I wanted to share the images of tofu popping to the surface of my mind like tiny bubbles: here is tofu, fresh and simply adorned; deep fried and crispy; stuffed and grilled; served spicy-hot in a stone pot or silken-sweet floating in ginger syrup. It was difficult to convey the beauty of well-prepared tofu through words alone. I longed to prepare a small feast of soy and present it to her.
But, quality tofu was hard to come by. When it was available at the local market, it was packaged as health food. And the taste and texture does nothing for tofu’s image problem in the West. It’s a steep price to pay for a mediocre product at $3.50 to $6.50 for 8 ounces.
In lieu of physical evidence, I present my host with a thought experiment. Imagine, I say, a childhood without cheese. I explain to her that when I was young, even a few drops of milk spilled on a fingertip caused me to break out into hives. Tofu, I continue, is like cheese but instead of coagulating milk from a cow or goat or sheep, it is soy beans. Tofu—like cheese—can be eaten fresh, fried, fermented, aged, savory, sweet or stinky. My host looks unconvinced. We, after all, are frolicking in the world of the hypothetical—she was raised in a small village in France and possessed an entirely different taste palette than me; imagining a cheese of beans is probably odd at best.
If only I had a full color copy of “Asian Tofu” to gift.
I admit that I am the luckier one. I have long grown out of my dairy allergy and am cycling through the heartland of cheese. When I ask my host to describe her favorite kinds—all chèvre and certain regional varieties—I know a short walk to her fridge or the market is all that is required of me to try for myself—no imagination necessary. In fact, since leaving Portugal, I have dived into my cheese education with such enthusiasm, that our host in Montpellier asked, “So, you’re addicted now?”
I might sample cheese by day—we have recently passed through the towns of Rocquefort and Gorgonzola—but by night you can find me on my back, reading a book without pages, cooking meals without ingredients, and eating without chewing.
Somewhere in a small tent at the edge of a farmer’s field—a marooned stomach cries out.