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July 28, 2011

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Versatile tofu - cubes to tiramisu

TOFU or soybean curd is one of the staples of Chinese, Southeast Asian and East Asian cooking and comes in many varieties.

It can be eaten for breakfast as a bowl of custard-like doufu hua with sweet or salty toppings. For aficionados, there's "stinky tofu" (chou doufu), made with vegetable and fish brine (some say it smells rotten, lovers say it smells heavenly). Some people eat pickled dry tofu with yellow wine.

Extremely high in protein, tofu is a favorite of vegetarians. It's low in calories and relatively low in fat.

Tofu can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). It is said to have been invented by accident as an emperor's grandson was seeking the elixir of life and combined soybean milk and bitters. He didn't find immortality, but he did come up with a divine taste and aroma. Shao County in Anhui Province is considered the home of tofu.

Chinese and Japanese chefs cook tofu differently. Four chefs, two from the Shanghai Marriott Hotel Changfeng Park and two from the Radisson Blu Hotel Shanghai Hong Quan, tell of their different creations.

"I like using tofu since it's not expensive but flexible. When paired with various sauces and cooked with different ingredients, tofu presents different flavors and texture," says Chef Chen Shaohua from Shanghai Marriott Changfeng Park. All chefs agree.

"In Chinese cuisine, tofu can be steamed, fried, stuffed, braised and made into soup," says Jacky Zhou, executive chef of Radisson Blu Hotel Shanghai Hong Quan.

In Japan, tofu is often tossed, grilled and made into dessert, says Mitsuhiro Sakamoto, the Japanese chef from Shanghai Marriott Changfeng Park.

From their recipes, it appears that Chinese chefs prefer giving tofu additional flavor through using various spices and sauces while Japanese chefs generally highlight the original soybean taste.

Chef Zhou brings his Mapo Tofu (48 yuan/US$7.40), a representative of Sichuan cuisine. Tofu is braised with slightly numbing Sichuan pepper, chili, fermented black beans and minced meat. Pork soup is added to strengthen the aroma.

For Shanghai palates, the chef has lowered the chili heat and added sugar. The first sensation is a bit numbing and spicy, typical Sichuan flavor. Then comes the unami (savory) flavor created by sauce and fatty pork - it melts on the tongue. When tofu is combined with sauce, it absorbs the rich flavor.

Braised Shrimp, Crab Roe with Corn and Tofu (67 yuan) is chef Chen's new creation. "Tofu itself doesn't contain strong flavor and its texture is too simple, so I use seafood to give it more flavor and corn to enrich the texture," he says.

Since he hails from Guangdong Province, the dish has the lightness and freshness of Cantonese cuisine. The corn adds a crispy texture and sweet flavor. The dish is relatively low calorie and suitable for hot summer.

Chef Sakamoto presents two dishes, Tofu Salad (price undecided) in traditional Japanese style and Tofu Tiramsu (50 yuan) combining Japanese and Italian elements. They contain five tofu cubes (2-3cm), each with a different topping - wasabi, oba leaves, bonito flakes and fish roe.

"Different toppings give different flavors and mouth feel in one dish," the chef says. Cubes are dipped in a soybean and olive oil sauce.

Tofu Tiramisu is very different in taste from the super-rich original, but equally creamy. "Japanese consider health when choosing food," says Sakamoto. "Thus, I used tofu filled with soy lecithin."

At the bottom is a layer of mashed white sesame, then comes a mixture of tofu, cream and milk and on the top there's fruit. A strong aroma of sesame and a milky flavor dominate, while the fresh fruit balances the sweet cream.

Fried Tofu (23 yuan) is presented by chef Collin Song from Radisson Blu Hotel Shanghai Hong Quan, who has been cooking Japanese food for more than 15 years. Tofu is deep-fried and served with a dried laver (seaweed) and mashed radish.

The heat is carefully controlled to give the outside a crispy texture, while the inside is tender and milky. It's served with a sauce of diced green onion, mirin (Japanese condiment of sugar and rice) and Shiragiku vinegar. The tofu has a complex flavor that's sweet and sour and also tastes of rice.


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