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The Sound of One Soybean Clapping

A Student of Zen Buddhism Gives Tofu a Standing Ovation

April 29, 2001|WANDA HENNIG | Wanda Hennig last wrote for the magazine about butternut squash soup

I decided to take a sabbatical from my regular life when I turned 40. I was single, fancy-free and experiencing that "been there, done that, so now what?" feeling I think is common among women who combined career and motherhood when young and reached burnout.

My travels led me halfway around the world, from South Africa to California, where I took up residence in a Zen Buddhist community in San Francisco. Culinary enlightenment in this meat-free environment came in the form of bland white wedges that transformed into taste-nirvana when stir-fried with a splash of soy sauce, a dash of ginger and a juicy clove or two of the freshest garlic.

Tofu was something I'd heard about before this spiritual retreat became, for a time, my home. And because of what I'd heard--to say nothing of some awful soy-based meat substitutes dished up to me in the name of healthy eating--I'd done a pretty good job living a tofu-free life. Now, suddenly, I was being fed tofu every other day. Tofu for breakfast--tiny squares as soft as silk floating in miso soup. Tofu for lunch--bite-size squares that seemed to bounce in the mouth before collapsing in a piquant fusion with plump black olives in a California-style Greek salad. Or at dinner, tofu dropped into a bubbling aromatic stew crammed with loads of thinly sliced mushrooms sauteed in onion and garlic and juiced up with sour cream to form a stroganoff base.

I admit that I faced my early tofu meals with dread. But tofu, it seems, is an acquired taste and soon I discovered I was liking it. Mealtimes became good times, which encouraged this Zen student to conveniently forget the Zen notion of cultivating a nondiscriminating mind.

What is tofu, you ask? Essentially a byproduct of boiled soybeans and available in a variety of textures. Softer blocks are good for miso, dips and desserts. Firmer wedges generally prove better for cooking as firm tofu retains its shape and absorbs flavor. To put tofu in perspective, compare it to the potato. Not in consistency, shape, or the fact that tofu can be eaten uncooked. But, like a potato, tofu is versatile and can be sauteed, deep fried, grilled, baked, broiled, cubed, mashed and transformed in a multitude of ways. Tofu is also healthful, with properties said to alleviate menopausal symptoms and reduce the risk of cancer, raised cholesterol and heart disease.

With my one-year sabbatical at an end, I became a permanent fixture in California and moved from my Zen-community home to an apartment, where tofu remains a permanent fixture in the fridge.

Savory Tofu Scramble

Serves 4

1 large sweet onion, diced

1/2 teaspoon Thai green chile paste

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1/4 teaspoon red chile flakes

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1 19-ounce block firm, fresh organic tofu

1 teaspoon capers

1/2 teaspoon Hungarian paprika

1/4 teaspoon lemon pepper

1 3/4-ounce packet dried mixed mushrooms

2 tablespoons diced prosciutto

1/2 cup frozen petite peas, thawed

3 tablespoons Gruyere cheese, grated


Reconstitute mushrooms as directed on packet and set aside. Rinse tofu gently under cold water, drain in colander. Slice tofu into 1/2-inch squares. Set aside. In a stir-fry pan, warm olive oil over low heat. Add green chile paste, onion, garlic, chile flakes and sea salt. Simmer until onion is tender. Add prosciutto and continue to simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Add mushrooms and peas. Return to simmer. Add tofu squares and, with a large fork, mash gently so that consistency resembles lightly scrambled eggs. Add capers, paprika and lemon pepper and allow to simmer gently for 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to plates and sprinkle with cheese.

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