Homemade: Tofu–No Fancy Equipment Necessary!

For the last three years, I had a pack of nigari and a wooden tofu press sitting in my kitchen cupboard. Unfortunately, the duo never saw any action as I didn’t get round to making tofu.

Now that we’ve moved across the country and most of our belongings—and 95 percent of my kitchen equipment!—are in storage, I found myself aching to make tofu. So on a cool, fallish Thursday morning with “Putting on the Ritz” blasting away (I just rediscovered my 80’s collection on the computer!), I set about making tofu for the first time, no nigari, no tofu press.

First things first, I surveyed my ingredients and my equipment.

I decided I didn’t want to make soymilk from scratch (read: my food processor is in storage). I ended up buying a half-gallon bottle of fresh soymilk from the Asian store. This was my choice because it was made by a local company and it contained only three ingredients: water, non-GMO soybeans and soy lecithin (now if only I could find a brand that uses organic soybeans). Compare this to the widely available brand, Silk, which has calcium carbonate, natural flavors, carageenan, etc., etc. I wanted as few additives as possible.

Part of my tofu-making arsenal

Nigari (a natural coagulant of magnesium chloride made by evaporating seawater) is the coagulant of choice in Japan, while the Chinese prefer gypsum (calcium sulfate). Both are sold specifically for making tofu and are available at specialty stores (here are some online sources). I went with what was more readily available. In the spirit of experimentation, I used three different coagulants: lemon juice, lime juice and Epsom salt.

As for equipment, I took out my stainless steel pot, a couple of wooden spoons, my recently-purchased cheesecloth (you can use a thin cotton non-terry dish towel or handkerchief), and I was ready to start tofu-making.

True to “no fancy equipment” form, I decided to convert an old plastic tofu container into a makeshift tofu press.I turned it upside down and started cutting into the nicks that were already molded into the plastic, making sure the slits were big enough to allow liquid to drain through. Clever, eh?

I made similar holes in all 4 corners of the tofu container for my makeshift tofu press

Just so you know, we food writers and recipe developers are not perfect, and we do make mistakes. The first time round, I used 4 cups of soymilk and 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice diluted in ½ cup water as a coagulant. The first sign that something was amiss was that with every wring of the cheesecloth, still milky-white liquid oozed from the tiny holes. The liquid is supposed to be translucent. But I went ahead and pressed the curds into my “tofu press” anyway.

After my myriad tries to press out as much liquid as possible, my tofu was still soft and spongy.

I took a bite. It tasted like tofu, the texture wasn’t bad, plush and soft, kinda like marshmallow. But it refused to bind despite my best efforts so I had to raise the white flag. I decided I could use it in mabo tofu or to make tofu and minced pork balls.

Maybe I needed more lemon juice? Or maybe I should have continued stirring the mixture over the heat until it started separating more noticeably. Or … Whatever it was, I was determined to try again.

Then I recalled my paneer-making efforts. Perhaps I could follow the same method–the process is basically the same, separating the curds from the whey with a coagulant.

I followed the method almost to a “t,” using juice from 3 1/2 limes (about the equivalent in tablespoons), and lo and behold, I had firm, freshly-pressed tofu! I was overcome with so much jubilation—my first successful batch of tofu—I almost started tearing.

This time I pressed my tofu in a colander which formed an oddly-shaped disc of tofu. Nonetheless, I was excited to try a piece. Perhaps I should have waited and relished the tofu high a little longer. Once I popped a piece in my mouth, my elation crumbled like the disintegrating tofu in my mouth. I didn’t care for the powdery texture and the tartness that clung to the background like a wallflower, barely noticeable but still there.

Using a colander as a “press” results in an odd-shaped piece of tofu.

Not satisfied with my tofu-making efforts, I tried yet again, this time with Epsom salt as my coagulant. And as they say, the third time’s a charm!

The curds that formed were still smaller than I was expecting and I was skeptical. Somehow or another, the itty bitty curds bound into a perfect block of momen tofu (“momen” means “cotton” and describes a medium firm tofu). Unlike store-bought tofu which can sometimes taste bland, this tofu tasted mildly sweet, and not too beany. The texture was dense and looked crumbly but once in my mouth, it was cottony soft, just like its moniker.

Woot, my tofu was finally a total success!

I’m not sure if I’ll be making tofu regularly but I did come away from the experience with a few tofu tidbits. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend lemon or lime juice because they impart a tangy flavor that was a little odd in the resulting tofu. I think I’m going to try using nigari next to see if bigger tofu curds form, hopefully producing a smoother, less crumbly tofu.

And finally, for first-timers, buy Epsom salt. If you decide you don’t ever want to make tofu again, you can use the remainder for a relaxing soak in the bath after a busy day of standing in the kitchen!

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Homemade Momen Tofu

I’ve tried making tofu several times now and the process never goes exactly the same. I’m always surprised–the resulting tofu may turn out a little firmer or a wee bit spongier. I really can’t tell you why but that’s ok since it always tastes good. I just mix it up, using the tofu in different recipes. Keep in mind, the quality of your soymilk plays a huge part in how your tofu will turn out. In other words, keep experimenting until you’re satisfied!

Time: 45 minutes to 1 hour
Makes: about 14 oz tofu

2 teaspoons Epsom salt
4 cups soymilk (storebought or homemade)

Stir the Epsom salt into ½ cup hot water until it completely dissolves.

In a large pot, bring the soymilk to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. When steam starts to appear and bubbles form around the edge of the pot, reduce the heat to medium. Simmer for about 3 minutes, stirring often to ensure the soymilk doesn’t burn. Remove any film that forms on the surface.

Reduce the heat to low. Pour the Epsom salt mixture into the hot soymilk a little at a time, stirring after each pour. The curds will soon start separating from the whey. As soon as obvious curds have formed and the whey turns from a milky white to a yellowish, translucent liquid, stop pouring. You want to use as little coagulant as possible because it might impart a bitter taste to the tofu. I usually use up about ¼ to 1/3 cup of the Epsom salts mixture.

Take the pot off the heat and cover with a lid. Let it sit for about 15 minutes to allow the curds to separate even further. After 15 minutes, if the whey is still opaque, add more of the Epsom salts mixture, stirring after each pour. Don’t worry if the curds are no bigger than coarse breadcrumbs.

Set your “tofu press” over a colander in the sink. Line the press with the cheesecloth.

Pour the curds and whey into the “tofu press” in stages, waiting for the whey to drain into the sink. Wring as much liquid from the cheesecloth as possible.

Press the curds into the “tofu press,” filling out the corners. Or press into the bottom of a colander or sieve. Fold the cheesecloth neatly and place a folded towel on top to soak up excess liquid. Weigh down the tofu with two cans of food.

Allow the tofu to set for 15 to 20 minutes. Unwrap the cheesecloth and turn the tofu block out into a large bowl or plastic container. Fill with water, being careful not to hit the tofu directly with the stream of water, and rinse the tofu gently. Drain and the tofu is ready to be made into dinner.

To store, submerge the tofu in water in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days, changing the water every day. Remember, this is fresh tofu and has no preservatives!

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Resources I used to come up with my own tofu-making process:

Just Hungry: The blogosphere’s definitive site for Japanese food and cuisine

Brenda J Wiley: A detailed description of how to make tofu using a soymilk machine

LaFujiMama: Check out her easy-to-follow processes for making soymilk from scratch and quick one-hour tofu

Lo bak by any other name is still pork braised in soy sauce

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Star anise or aniseed, adds an unmistakable flavor to this popular Chinese pork dish

One rainy Seattle morning, I had the pleasure of meeting up with not one, but two, grandmas! My friend Byron Au Yong arranged for me to meet his grandma, Ty Hee Tak, and his aunt Merla who is married to his first uncle Te See.

Merla, who lives in New Hampshire, was in town to celebrate Hee Tak’s “100th” birthday on October 1, 2007. I was told that Hee Tak was born in Anhai, Fujian province, China, in 1909. So I was more than a little confused since according to my calculations and the Gregorian calendar (i.e. the Western calendar), she was only 98 years old. Merla kindly explained. “She turned 99 by the Chinese calendar but you don’t want to celebrate 99 years (bad luck?) so you celebrate 100.” Ah, I get it … I think.

Nevertheless, it was a momentous occasion and the festivities were attended by Hee Tak’s three sons, three daughters, 22 grandkids and 17-1/2 great grandkids (one was on the way) who came from near and far.

The matriarch of the Au Yong family has lived a long and somewhat tumultuous life. Hee Tak migrated to the Visaya region in Southern Philippines when she was young (she can’t remember when) where she eventually became a Chinese teacher. Her late husband, Auyong Shu, was the principal of a Chinese school. When the Japanese occupied the Philippines during World War II, they managed to avoid persecution (the Japanese despised both the Chinese and the educated class) by escaping to the mountains. When the war was over, they decided not to teach anymore (as it still is now, teaching was a low paid and underappreciated profession) and started a business selling fabrics instead. In 1981, Hee Tak moved to the U.S. to join her children.

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Merla See 

Merla’s story starts in the Philippines. She was born in the Philippines in 1934 to Chinese parents who migrated from Fujian in the 1920s. On September 21, 1972, then President Marcos declared martial law over the entire country. With the rising tide of violence and lawlessness, thousands of Filipinos fled the country, Merla and her family among them.

Like Hee Tak who couldn’t even boil water when she got married, Merla admits she didn’t learn how to cook until later in life. “I looked at cookbooks and that’s how I learned.” Even then, she cooked very simple dishes. Thankfully her children and husband were “not too choosy,” she says. “I just cooked up a big pot. (With) four boys and a girl, just as long as there’s meat they liked it!”

Despite having lived in the Philippines for many years, both Hee Tak and Merla cooked mainly Chinese cuisine. And when asked what’s their favorite dish to cook for family, both women said “lo bak,” which is pork braised in soy sauce (also known as red cooked pork), not to be mistaken with  “lor bak go” which is radish/turnip cake. According to Merla, the words “lo” and “bak” signify water and meat coming together. [Update: A Cantonese friend recently told me that “lou” means “to braise” … makes sense, eh? This same friend also uses a combo of sweet and salty soy sauce in her family recipe.]

Merla points out that the famous Filipino dish, adobo, is a variation on this Chinese meat and soy sauce dish. And not surprisingly, Adobo is one dish Merla does make. With the addition of vinegar, a more distinct flavor comes out, she explains.

Soy sauce braised pork (a.k.a. lo bak,  le dao yu,  dao yu bak, etc.)

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Every Chinese family has their own version of (and so it seems, a different name for) this dish. Merla used to make it with “san zhen bak,” three layered pork, which we call pork belly. But over the years, health concerns came to the forefront and she now prefers to use leaner cuts of meat. Instead of salty soy sauce, my mom used to add Indonesian sweet soy sauce and hard boiled eggs to the mix. My point is, let your creative juices flow, substitute beef, chicken or other cuts of pork, as well as vegetables.  

 

Active time: 15 minutes

Makes: 6-8 servings

 

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon sugar

1-1/2 pounds pork butt, cut into 1-inch cubes

1/2″ ginger root, peeled and sliced into thin coins

3/4 cup chicken stock

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon Chinese wine or sherry

2 whole star anise (optional)

2 bay leaves (optional)

White pepper to taste

 

In a medium pot, heat oil over medium heat for about a minute (you want it hot but not smoking)and add sugar. Stir until sugar melts and brown globules form. Add pork and ginger and stir fry until no longer pink, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 1 hour or until meat is very tender. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve hot over rice.

Take a Can of Creamed Corn …

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My husband, hungry_hobbit for those who need reminding, never tried *gasp* fresh asparagus until he was all growns up, or in my mind, till he met me. His mom fed him canned asparagus (I am told she still prefers canned to fresh to this very day.) He’d probably never eaten so much of this spindly vegetable all in a row, either, till he met me–we ate asparagus almost every day for a week when I was doing an assignment on this elegant spear. We had green, purple, and white asparagus; stir fried, made into mousse, pureed into a potage …. Anyway, I digress.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m not usually one for canned vegetables. I like my veggies perky and fresh, sometimes with their roots attached, perhaps coated with a fine sprinkling of dirt and tasting robustly of the land. (Yes, I do have a vegetable garden although it’s looking a little sparse this year without my dad’s assistance.)

I have to make one exception: canned corn.

Somehow or another, corn kernels manage to stay sunshiney–both in color and disposition–sweet, and crisp under cover of anodized tin, a far cry from its mushy and dingy-looking carrot and green pea counterparts. And if you’ve never had canned rutabaga, otherwise known as swede in England where I first had it … ugh …don’t.

And get ready for this, I love cream-style corn! I guess it’s like durian, I grew up eating it and it’s one of my all time favorite things to eat. With the addition of a little water and starch, cut corn is transformed into a batch of creamy goodness. When I was growing up, my mum turned canned creamed corn into two simple dishes: corn soup and corn fritters.

I was surfing the internet for fun nuggets on cream-style corn and I found this 11-page document published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “United States standards for grades of canned cream style corn. Effective July 1, 1957.” The document’s chapters go into great detail about identity, colors, rating factors, consistency, flavor, and tenderness, among other things. I never knew that canned corn, or canned anything for that matter, was held to such high standards. Take note, you only want U. S. Grade A or U.S. Fancy.

I’ll never look at canned creamed corn the same again.

Corn fritters

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These corn fritters can be eaten as a snack or as part of a meal with rice. My mum likes to add finely chopped kaffir lime leaf to add fragrance and flavor. I didn’t in this recipe but for those who don’t make it to the Asian grocery store often enough, snip lemon verbena leaves instead for a similar citrusy scent and savor.

Time: 1 hour

Makes: 10-12 fritters

1 (14 oz) can cream style corn

1 large egg

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

3 oz cooked shrimp

1 stalk green onion, cut into ‘O’s

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

1 cup of oil for frying

In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients except oil. Mix well until no large lumps are left. In a skillet, heat oil over medium-low heat until shimmering. Fill a 1/4 measuring cup slightly less than full of batter and slowly dribble into hot oil to form a mound about 2.5″ in diameter. The patties will not be totally submerged.

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Cook until golden brown ruffles form around edges. About 5 minutes. Flip with tongs or spatula and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes until cooked through.

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Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.

Easy-peasy creamy corn soup

This soup is perfect for a cold, dreary day and anytime you want an easy light lunch. My basic recipe comprises only two ingredients: one can of cream-style corn and an egg. But if you want to get a little fancier, just like at the local Cantonese restaurant, you can add chopped crab meat, ham or chicken, and a dash of Chinese wine or sherry.

Time: 10 minutes

Makes: One Pat-sized serving

1 (14 oz) can cream style corn

7 oz water or chicken broth

1 egg, lightly beaten

Salt and white pepper to taste

1/4 teaspoon sesame oil, or to taste (optional)

1/2 stalk green onion, finely chopped for garnish (optional)

In a medium saucepan, combine cream-style corn and water or broth (no need to pull out the measuring cups, just fill half the can with liquid). Bring to boil over medium heat. About 3 minutes. Stir in the salt and white pepper (now’s also the time to add wine or cooked meat if using). Turn down heat to low and pour egg into soup in a steady stream, and quickly stir in one direction until skinny ribbons form. Remove from heat. Drizzle with sesame oil and garnish with green onions.

Eggy Stir-Fried Cabbage

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I’ve been eating this dish for as long as I can remember. My mum made it, my aunts made it and now I make it–it’s so simple I can churn it out in 10 minutes. I definitely consider it a comfort food. More often than not, I’ll just pile a mound of crunchy sweet greens strewn with eggy bits over rice for a simple meal. At dinner, it makes a great side dish served with meat and rice. This method works with nappa cabbage and bok choy too but cook the ribs for about two minutes first before adding the leaves. You can add some tiny shrimp after the garlic is done for a little “meat.”

Makes: 2 servings as a single dish with rice or 4 as a side dish

1/2 head medium cabbage, cored and cut into shreds
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons canola oil

2 eggs
1 tablespoon fish sauce (or soy sauce if you prefer)
1/8 teaspoon white pepper powder
Salt to taste

In a wok or large skillet, stir fry garlic in oil over medium heat until fragrant and golden brown. About 2 minutes.

Add cabbage. Turn up heat to medium high and stir fry until cabbage turns bright green and translucent, about 3 to 4 minutes. Keep things moving in the wok.

Turn down heat to low. Make a well in the center of the wok by moving cabbage to the edges. Crack eggs into the well.

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Stir eggs with spatula until yolks are broken, trying to keep cabbage out of egg mixture. Let eggs cook for about 2 minutes until almost set but still a little runny (like soggy scrambled eggs).

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Turn up heat to medium. Mix up entire contents of wok. Add two tablespoons water, fish sauce, white pepper and salt. Keep stir-frying for another minute. Take off the stove and serve immediately.