As a child growing up, I’d never heard of people who chose not to eat meat or drink milk. It was unheard of to see a person who didn't want anything to do with animal products. So, it was even stranger when I saw people on TV eating what they referred to as meat substituted. Come 2018 and being vegan or vegetarian is a whole world of its own offering really amazing foods that I would never have thought to combine! It has brought a new perspective about cooking to me and I enjoy showing people that eating vegetarian and at times vegan can be a culinary experience. That mentioned, I should point out that even though I greatly enjoy vegan and vegetarian meals, I am neither a vegan nor a vegetarian. I love my occasional Nyama Choma (charcoal roasted goat meat) and my spicy mutura (Kenya's traditional sausage) once in a while.
My first interaction with tofu was at the supermarket. This funny looking white substance that I’d heard was an Asian delicacy aroused my curiosity but I didn’t have the guts to buy one. I didn’t know how to handle it, let alone how to cook it! My second interaction with tofu was at a friend’s place and they were making tofu for dinner with some fried eggplants and I got the motivation to try it out.
So, on valentines day, I decided to surprise my husband to a three-course candle light dinner in our sitting room with background music; the whole shebang! His first experience with tofu in an Asian restaurant in New York was the worst he’d ever had and I was lucky not to have such a high standard of tofu preparation to work with. After a bit of research and a lot of time in the kitchen, we had an amazing valentines dinner!
What is tofu?
The soybean plant was first used in Asia where tofu is known to have originated from. The plant was later introduced to America where it was grown for the purpose of making animal feeds but over time, they borrowed the Asian technique of making tofu and used the beans to make tofu. The spread of tofu in Asia is linked to the spread of Buddhism and their culture of eating plant-based foods across China and Japan. It was (and still is) a delicacy in most parts of Asia.
The young soybeans in a pod called edamame are used in meals in different parts of Asia. Edamame is generally sweeter than mature soybean… I think they are the equivalent of snow peas or French beans, the only difference being the pods aren’t eaten even though at times they are cooked together with the green beans. They are locally available in the vegetable sections of some supermarkets. You can also use soy milk as a milk substitute for recipes that required dairy milk.
Tofu is basically curd made from soy (soya) beans. It’s made by crushing soaked soybeans to make soy milk. The soy milk is coagulated to form curd which is separated from the soy pulp (okara). The coagulated soy milk is then placed in cheese cloths/muslin bags and forms tofu after a certain period of time. The ‘pulp’ is used to make okara balls, the vegan version of meatballs. I will hopefully get my vegan friend’s amazing okara balls recipe and share it here :-).
There are two distinct types of tofu, firm tofu and soft tofu. The firm one has some level of moisture and a variation of the firm tofu is the extra firm tofu that barely has any moisture. The soft tofu also has two variations, a very soft tofu that is usually used in pastries and can’t be picked my a chopstick and the slightly firm tofu that is used to make scrambled eggs (tofu version). I've only seen firm tofu being sold locally. If you're a DIY kinda person, you could make some for yourself at home. There are a number of online resources that can teach you how to do it.
In Nairobi, I’ve found tofu at Chandarana Supermarket and The Corner Shop. I am specifically referring to the ones located at the Yaya Shopping Center. You can also tofu in a number of Chinese supermarkets around Hurlingham area. It goes for around Kshs. 80 - 150 per piece depending on where you buy it and how much it weighs. It’s also packaged differently depending on where you buy it and most are stored in water. I'd carried an empty container when I bought tofu the first time because I didn't want water leaking into my shopping bag. Though the subsequent times I've purchased it in a plastic container and at times in a white paper bag.
If left outside of water for a while (say 4-5hrs), it starts to change colour from a pale white to a light shade of pink but it still is edible at this point in time.
I’d advise you do your shopping earlier in the day if you choose to shop at one of the Chinese Supermarkets as it’s sometimes sold out in the evenings. Chandarana and The Corner Shop always have some in store regardless of the time you do your shopping.
I’ll share with you a part two of ‘Tofu for beginners’ to showcasing how best to prepare tofu and the different ways to cook it.