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August 16, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Talking tofu in Seattle: trust me, you want some

Let’s talk tofu. I used to wrinkle my nose at the thought of it, just like many of you. “Bland!” I’d cry. “Boring!” I’d insist. “Soybean curd? Forget it!” But that was back before I knew better.

To live in and around Seattle, and to ignore the tantalizing textures and downright deliciosity that is tofu, is a mistake you should not make. Why? Because there’s so much more to tofu than those little white cubes floating in the miso soup served with your sushi combo. And more ways to eat it than you might imagine: fried and chilefied for snacking, knotted into tofu-noodles, softly floating in scintillating stews and ginger-syrup sweetened as a silken dessert.

Who says tofu is boring? Not me! And you won’t either, if you try this hotpot at Seattle’s Northwest Tofu, chockfull of treasures including tofu noodles and 5-spice tofu.

“Tofu is a misunderstood ingredient,” says Asian food authority Andrea Nguyen. “You could probably write country-song lyrics about it.” With her next cookbook, “Asian Tofu: Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook It at Home,” due out next spring, she hopes to change that.

Tofu is made from fresh soy milk, in a production process similar to that of cheese. Nguyen likens the difference between tofu prepared at home — or bought from a fresh-tofu house — to the difference between creamy fresh mozzarella and commercially available shrink-wrapped brands: night and day.

Lucky us, then! Seattle supports myriad fresh tofu sources: small storefront operators whose products are widely available at area supermarkets and Asian-food groceries, including Uwajimaya, 99 Ranch and Viet-Wah.

Among them is Northwest Tofu, a family-run factory and Chinese cafe at 1911 S. Jackson Street in the Central District — and the answer to a tofu-lover’s prayers. I’m with Jean Nakayama, owner of Seattle’s century-old Maneki restaurant, who’s crazy for the cafe’s salt and pepper tofu. Those savory cubes are fried so light, crisp and custardy, eating one is like biting into a cumulous cloud as it wafts over Shangri-La, though you’ll also want to try the tofu hot-pot, whose aromatic ingredients include meaty-textured 5-spice tofu.

Salt and pepper tofu, light as a cloud and available in the cafe at Northwest Tofu.

Regulars like Nakayama are hip to the “secret” alley access. Here you’ll find neighbors lining up for tofu (except for Wednesdays, when they’re closed). And if you’re lucky, you’ll get a peek-a-boo view of owner Yong Huang in a steamy corner of his workshop, deftly creating delicate soft-tofu skins, a house specialty.

Anna Chen, wife of Northwest Tofu owner Yong Huang, making soft-tofu skins, a house specialty. [Seattle Times/Ellen Banner]

Wiley Frank, sous-chef at Lark and co-owner of the Thai food caterer and pop-up restaurant Shophouse (soon to pop up Mondays at La Bête on Capitol Hill), is another Northwest Tofu regular. Whether he’s dining with his family in the cafe, or buying tofu to add to his Shophouse curry, it’s the care that’s taken here that brings him back week after week.

Nearby at Thanh Son Tofu (118 12th Ave.), a Vietnamese deli off 12th and Yesler, regulars grab plastic produce bags and load up on just-fried tofu cubes. At $3 per pound, it’s an inexpensive snack: My spicy favorite comes clinging with lemongrass and dried chilies. In the adjacent production facility, vats of boiled soybeans are transformed into blocks of compressed cakes. Soy milk — still warm! — is sold in half-gallon jugs, or cooked until the curds resemble pudding; try the savory green version steeped with pandan leaf, delightful with a spoonful of the coconut cream provided alongside.

Fried tofu, sold by the pound at Thanh Son Tofu. I’m partial to the lemongrass and chile version (right). And I’m not the only one: the last time I was there, they’d just run out (waaaah!).

In Rainier Valley, you might seek out Chuminh Tofu (6754 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S.), offering fresh tofu pressed into blocks labeled soft, medium, firm and extra-firm, or fried into cubes for snacking or stir-frying. Owner Tanya Nguyen plans to open a vegetarian take-out deli this month, at 1043 S. Jackson Street in Little Saigon.

Rachel Yang makes her own tofu at her Wallingford restaurant Joule, where it’s subtly smoked and served with honshimeji mushroom confit. Yang’s go-to tofu for home use is Pulmuwon, an organic commercial brand. With a long history in Korea, it’s now produced in the U.S. (and available at H Mart in Lynnwood). Its fine texture and “clean, nutty flavor” is a plus, says the Korea-born chef.

As for those of you who’ve yet to step up to the tofu challenge? Buy it, you’ll like it, she suggests, offering this baby step for counteracting the “bland” factor: Soak sliced tofu in soy sauce for a half-hour before using it in a recipe.

And speaking of tofu recipes, stay tuned. I’ll post one for this beauty in a bit:

This tastes as good as it looks.

Comments | More in Food and Restaurant News | Topics: Asian Restaurants

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