Tofu in America: A Quick History Plus Dessert!

Thirty years ago, tofu was as foreign to most American families as cell phones and quinoa, those tiny seed-relatives of the spinach family, now back from ancient Peru by popular demand.

Years before Whole Foods Market or even Trader Joes opened their doors, I bought tofu at a mom-and-pop health food store. Every week I’d fish a mushy chalk-white chunk from a bin that reminded me of my diaper pail. Then I’d finagle the crumbling mass into a plastic bag, using metal tongs for sanitary purposes, all the while holding the refrigerator door open with my butt.

It’s a lot easier now. Anybody can walk right into a Kroger or Safeway and buy a carton of tofu – even a registered Republican.  But in the seventies and early eighties, tofu was strictly the domain of Birkenstock-wearing hippy-types; counter-culture fringe who ate brown rice and named their kids Lotus and Sunshine – people with whom no self-respecting meat-eater would care to associate.

Bland, squishy and nondescript, tofu defied acceptance into the American lexicon. Most people, including me, had no idea what to do with it. We only knew it was “good for you.” At a picnic in Golden, CO, my yoga instructor barbequed tofu “steaks” for the vegetarians. Marinated in tamari sauce and fresh-grated ginger, they smelled better than the burgers.

When we lived in Santa Fe, where our two daughters were born, our neighbor had a bumper sticker on the back of her VW bug that said, “Have you rinsed your tofu today?”

This brings up a very real concern, despite the fact that tofu now comes in silken, soft, firm and extra-firm and you no longer have to fish the bricks out of a diaper pail, if you open one of the 14 oz. tubs and fail to consume the entire contents within a day or two, you must rinse your tofu and refill the mini-tub with pure Alaskan glacial water. Otherwise… well, you don’t want “otherwise.”

For the more adventurous there’s even “sprouted” tofu. Made from sprouted soy beans, this super-food contains nine grams of protein per serving, which is probably more information than you needed.

Finding the cookbook Tofu Goes West was a turning point in my culinary career. In it I discovered tofu enchiladas, a true revelation. No one could even tell this gorgeous dish had tofu in it.

That’s a lie. My kids all knew it had tofu in it, carefully camouflaged in a fluff of crunchy peanut butter, tomato paste, tamari sauce and red chile. It sounds positively gross, but is, in fact, entirely edible.

As fate would have it, my younger son, then in junior high, always brought a certain friend home for dinner on the nights I prepared this dish. And as I set the steaming Pyrex pan on the dining table, lovingly garnished with diced green onions and olives, I’m sure my children lamented their misfortune. Why couldn’t they have been born into a normal family; a family that ate real food, like Hamberger Helper?  My son’s friend, a burley teenager about as large as my front door,  chowed down. He liked tofu, he said; and he smiled and complimented the chef. I could not have been more pleased – and vindicated.

Because tofu is pourous, it absorbs the flavors of whatever foods it happens to be hanging out with. This qualifies it for a variety of roles, from soups and appetizers to main courses and desserts. You can even serve it plain if you want. Just don’t invite me.

My friend Jenny says Tofu is very yin. And I believe everything she says when it comes to Chinese cooking. Jenny’s from Hong Kong, where her mother not only taught her what and how to cook, but why.  “It’s cooling to the body ,” she said. “If you feel cold or nauseated, don’t eat it. ” Her mother also made a special soup for moody teenagers. I know a lot of parents who would pay good money for that recipe.

I used to make tofu whip for my kids, except I called it “tofu pudding” because I thought they would eat it if it had a yummy name. They did eat it, too. In moderation.

But be warned. If your kids are Jell-O pudding junkies, or pour half- a-pound of refined white sugar on their Lucky Charms, tofu whip will go over like a whole-wheat birthday cake.

Personally, I would not offer them any at this juncture. I would keep it for myself, or share with a friend – someone who takes their own bags to the grocery store. Preferably in Birkinstocks. FFG


Cocoa Tofu Whip

Makes 4 – 1/2 C servings

Add the following ingredients to blender:

1/2 brick tofu

1/2 C Unsweetened So Delicious Coconut Milk

1/4 cup turbinado sugar (if using sweetened coconut milk, decrease sugar. Stevia or agave nectar can also be substituted, following product guidelines.)

1/2 t almond extract

2 T coconut oil

2 T cocoa powder (I used organic, non-alkali processed)

Blend on low for about 30 seconds. Stop and make sure ingredients are blending properly. If not, dislodge ingredients with long handled wooden spoon and continue blending for another 30 seconds. Switch to high speed and blend another minute or until consistency is  smooth and creamy. Pour into serving bowl or custard cups.

Refrigerate until served. Garnish with fresh strawberries. FFG

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