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TOFU : A bland, high protein staple of Far Eastern diets, tofu, in various forms, including soft, firm and even powdered and frozen, is beginning to find a place on Western tables.

September 08, 1988|MINNIE BERNARDINO | Times Staff Writer

Tofu. I like to call it the "white cow of China," although the phrase has already been attributed to its basic ingredient, the soybean. High in protein--good-quality plant protein--the custard-like food from the East derives its humble beginnings from soybean milk. A staple in Chinese and other Oriental cuisines, the low-calorie, low-fat, no-cholesterol, highly digestible "white cow" is inching its way onto Western tables. Slowly.

Tofu: Either you like it or you don't. Tofu on a fancy plate? Upscale tofu? This was the assignment. But trying to fit this bland-tasting block of soybean curd into a nouvelle plate presentation is like forcing a white T-shirt to become a glamorous designer outfit for a formal affair. I tried calling various trendy chefs in town. No luck; they wouldn't touch tofu. "Try the health food shops," was the instant (and constant) advice.

It was time to rethink tofu. Maybe gussying it up would tease palates. We attempted our own creative tofu presentations in the test kitchen. I even tried other ideas at home. No takers. The imagination and taste memory were going faster than the visual lure. "Interesting," was the general comment. "No thanks, I'm too full from lunch," was another safe excuse.

Well--back to Oriental seasonings and ingredients, and tofu was home.

Tofu loves soy sauce (naturally, they both come from the same source, right?), chicken broth, seafood and anything salty. Its bland nature begs for the flavor of almost any stronger-tasting sauce such as those made with garlic or ginger. And because of its sleek white appearance, tofu blends well with any color. The marriage of tofu and green vegetables is everlasting. There's no better contrast, in color as well as texture, than a melt-in-your-mouth cube of silky tofu mingled with tender-crisp Chinese broccoli, baby bok choy or long beans.

Today you can get tofu in many forms, depending on moisture content. Some of these are: Chinese-style softer tofu, the firmer Japanese tofu, deep-fried tofu, grilled tofu, wine-fermented tofu, dried tofu, pressed tofu. Shapes include cakes, cubes, triangles, strands and noodles. There are instant powdered tofus as well as dried frozen ones. Tofu pudding is very delicate and soft; it goes well with syrups and sweet ingredients. Then there's the tofu that now comes vacuum-packed for a longer shelf life.

It's easy to rediscover the wonderful potential of this soybean delicacy when you taste a sampling of tofu dishes from Harbor Village, the new Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park, which is a subsidiary of a Hong Kong-based company. Their menu includes a section on tofu, featuring seven traditional dishes.

Tofu, Pei Pa Style, for example, is delicious oval-shaped tofu cakes made of mashed tofu, shrimp and ham served with chicken gravy and braised Chinese greens. The name Pei Pa stands for a musical instrument--the Chinese mandolin--which is denoted by the shape of the food. A crisp tempura-like coating highlights the Deep-Fried Shrimp Stuffed Tofu, which is moist inside. The recipes for these two dishes were provided by Hui Pui Wing, chief executive chef for the restaurant.

In the Philippines, people become addicted to fried tofu when it's mixed with a garlicky marinade of soy sauce and vinegar. A popular accompaniment is tender-boiled pork, which is also flavored with the marinade. We developed a new twist to this idea by making a scrumptious salad. Served over lettuce, Tangy Tofu and Pork Salad uses the same marinade, but the pork is best barbecued. Diced green beans perked up the overall color and for crunch, the fried tofu was tossed with the other ingredients at the end.

I spotted a beautiful tofu dish in a beautiful cookbook called Dining in Grand Style (Thorsons Publishers, Inc.: $35) by Elizabeth Schneider with Dieter Hannig and the chefs of Hilton International. Stuffed Tofu With Shrimp was the version of a Chinese classic given by chefs Yu Wen-Shen and Huang Hsein of the Hilton International Taipei. In this simple steamed affair perfumed with ginger and cilantro, tofu bars were stuffed with shrimp and embellished with frills of green onion and red chiles.

Other recipes featured here are also geared to the adventurer. There's Tofu Pasta with Spinach Pesto--Parmesan cheese and toasted pine nuts were sprinkled over for added gusto. A more healthful high-protein breakfast for an active day could include Sunshine Tofu and Egg--fried tofu and egg accented with a pretty yellow papaya or mango salsa. Try the silky soft tofu pudding with various syrups of your own or the recipes given here with fresh oranges or berries.

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