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The Heir to a Tofu Dynasty Finally Learns to Make Tofu (nytimes.com)
61 points by dankohn1 36 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments

-- Mr. Eng asked one of his parents’ former employees how much baking soda a particular recipe called for. He said, “A cup.” ... “Like a coffee cup?” “No, this one cup that we had at the shop.” The cup, naturally, had been thrown out.

This is so hilariously like my Chinese mother-in-law, get angry recreating her receipt at my house because why would anyone not using her "standard" sized cups (giveaways at the mall). She is not the only one, so is my grandma and mom.

I have a Nepali friend who was at the time doing a Ph.D. in biology. Part of his daily routine is to do DNA/RNA extraction, which is highly time-consuming and precise. It involves using pipettes to transfer a minuscule amount of stuff from one tube to another, wait for hours, spin it, add some enzymes, spin it, etc. Sometimes you do what you're instructed to do from the kit and the extraction still doesn't produce a useable result.

He had a pretty snuggly relationship with his advisor, and from time to time would bring his food to the lab to share. He told me one day, the advisor decided to ask him how to make the food. Like any biologist, she came to his house with a notebook, fully expected to be able to take notes. She expected him to show her the recipes like what you do in the DNA extraction. Instead, what he told her was... put a reasonable amount of this herb and that herb into the pot, then cook until done. She got frustrated and threw the notebook away and gave up the dream of cooking Nepali food.

I am Vietnamese and there's that special Vietnamese dipping sauce recipe that I wanted to make to treat my Chinese friend at the time I stayed at her place. I got really frustrated when I was following a recipe to make it and couldn't get it right and wasted 3/4 of what I bought. My friend was like... so... let me try. And she just mixed shit randomly, tasted it, and tried adding more shit by her instinct, and it worked!

I do enjoy cooking by the book from time to time. At the same time, there is a lot of Asian food that is made by instinct. It is part of what made the food interesting. It made the food part of an envolving species instead of being fixated.

BTW, learning from mistakes, my biologist friend now has a website with real recipes you can sorta follow, please like and subscribe™ if you want to make Nepali food: https://avikarn.com/foodblog/

> Instead, what he told her was... put a reasonable amount of this herb and that herb into the pot, then cook until done.

Maybe I'm a biologist at heart, but this is what really annoys me in the cooking scene. "Reasonable", "a pinch", "add to taste". It's like with the famous owl drawing tutorial - "1. Draw some circles; 2. Draw the rest of the fucking owl". You have to already be an experienced cook to be able to use such recipes.

When I was first learning to cook, I found this very frustrating too. Like, why can't someone just write down the precise amounts of everything and then a great recipe could actually be reliably shared and repeatable?

My moment of enlightenment came when I realized that many of the fundamental units of cooking are wildly variable. A recipe for baked potatoes that says "Add 1.3582 grams of salt" can have as many significant digits of precision as you want, but it won't fix the problem. One potato might be 50% bigger than another. Even potatoes of the same size may vary in water content, starch, etc. Even different kinds of salt vary in how salty they taste.

When a recipe says "Add 1-2 tsp salt" or "adjust to taste", it's not that the recipe is vague, it's that it's parametric. What it's really saying is that the ingredients you already have going will influence how much of this new ingredient you need so that's where you need to make some choices. The vagueness itself, compared to other ingredients which have precise quantities, is a useful signal for you to know which parameters need tuning and which don't.

It is a problem that it means you can't guarantee a new recipe will come out great the first time you make it, especially if you are a new cook. You're basically turning a knob blindly to see what happens. But for most recipes, there isn't really an easier solution. Imagine a recipe like, "Weigh the potato and then immerse in water to measure its density. Add a quantity of salt based on the following formula..." Would that work? Maybe. Would it be less work than just trying it a few times and getting a feel for it? Probably not.

It's not just weight that's variable, it's flavor too!

I cook all of my family's meals, and when I started out years ago, I tried to write down recipes exactly, weigh everything (how much is a cup of flour when density varies?), but then I realized, all the damn ingredients aren't the same twice.

Carrots can go from bitter to sweet, potatoes can range from starchy to gooey, herbs can be really subtle, or really strong, it depends on the weather. Even in my own garden, the herbs are completely variable. The only thing that seems consistent is meats and inorganic things like salt. Corn fed beef is different from grass fed beef, for example, but within each category, pretty consistent.

So, frustrating as it is, it's near impossible to write a perfectly reproducible recipe.

i mean i get it, but there is a middle ground between "add 1.3582 grams of salt" and giving no numbers at all.

There's a reason cultures of practice form, in which tacit knowledge is passed from master to novice across generations. Working with a skilled practitioner (cook, baker, carpenter, machinist, sysadmin, programmer, etc.) is an effective way to acquire a skill.

Not all knowledge is explicit (spoken/written). Some needs to be done to be learnt. This puts a fundamental limit to the amount of intergenerational knowledge and skill transfer, BTW.

> You have to already be an experienced cook to be able to use such recipes.

and there's only one way to acquire cooking experience: namely cooking. A "fake it until you make it" attitude is helpful; at worse you'll make some nasty food.

That's not faking it, faking it would be if you convinced someone else you were a good cook before you were one. I don't see how that would help...

Centuries old recipes for English[1] food is pretty terse and makes assumptions too (like you know what and how to make some base for the recipe). The detailed recipes are a modern take which make minimal assumptions so that most novices can read one and follow instructions.


For me a recipe is just a description of the steps to recreate the main gist of a dish. In a dish, you have the main steps giving the most flavour, and stuff added or swappef to enhance it.

Once you understand which are the main steps giving most flavour, you can play with the rest to adapt it to your taste. Precise amount are not needed, except on the first time you make an unknown dish.

For example I tried to do chocolate mousse several times, but always failed at the chocolate heating phase and incorporation to the egg mousse, even though i followed the recipe to the letter. I kept failing until someone told me that the main steps is to have the chocolate liquid while cool (she used coffee for this), and that incorporation need to be done gently. Since then i never failed at it, and replaced chocolate with fruits, without following a recipe.

>>I do enjoy cooking by the book from time to time. At the same time, there is a lot of Asian food that is made by instinct.

There's nothing unique about "Asian" food in this regard. You can codify anything culinary, and you will get a stable result (more or less. Some produce is better seasonally, old meat doesn't taste as good, etc but that's all cuisines). You can also cook "from the hip" and make things that fit your personal tastes.

I've taken several invented recipes to the full formality of 1/10 gram weights and full timed instructions and such. That process is difficult; "it needs a pinch more salt, weigh out 0.2g, try, 0.1g more, ... mark it +0.25g for the next batch."

It is nice when someone can replicate you dish without your input.

Don't weigh what went in, weigh what's left over. Before cooking something, weigh out exactly, for example, 10g of salt, 100g of oil, etc. At the end of the preparation, reweigh the ingredients and the difference is what went into the dish.

This is much easier than weighing 0.2g at a time.

The Egg Ramen Pad Thai must be really good... I'd add some stir-fried bacon bits. https://avikarn.com/food/2019-07-27-ramen/

it's not instinct, it's a combination of using your sense of smell (thinking with your nose) and practice (pretty much trial and error).

I used to work at a small Thai restraint. Much of the secret recipes were all on a sheet where "a cup" didn't mean a full 240ml vessel, but actually the entire capacity of "some cup" in the back of the kitchen. The kicker was that the cup in question was actually a measuring cup sized to hold over a quart! So in reality, the liquid measurements in the recipes were actually double what a layperson would interpret them to be. Now I wonder, was that intentional security through obscurity?

If anyone is interested in making their own tofu I found these books to be quite good.

Asian tofu by Andrea Nguyen The book of tofu by William shurtleff and akiko aoyagi

The first is a bit more basic but covers a range of Asian tofu and is easier to get into.

The second is very dense with information and is more specifically about Japanese tofu but after getting started with the first book I much prefer referring to this one.

Homemade tofu is incredible easy to make, it's only soybean, of course, water, heat, and Glucono delta-lactone

Glucono delta lactone is a super weird thing to make tofu with. I'm sure it works, but it's pretty unconventional. I'm actually quite curious to try it. Chinese tofu is usually make with calcium sulphate (gypsum) and Japanese tofu is usually make with magnesium chloride (nigari). Nigari is harder to use because it is quite bitter, but it has a very nice texture when done right (and balances the sweetness of the soy milk). Needs to be eaten quite fresh, though.

Very good tofu requires a lot of knowledge and skill, but I'll agree that making something better than what you can get in the supermarket is about as hard as falling off a log.

Edit: Just looked it up. Glucono delta lactone is used for making "silken" tofu, which is a fairly recent invention (in Japanese "kinu" tofu).

Glucono delta lactone is really common nowadays in mass production, you take a look at hmart (https://fresh.hmart.com/meat-seafood-produce/dairy/egg-tofu), and calcium sulfate is often add with it to beat down the sour. As I know both of the chemicals you mentioned are used in traditional Chinese tofu making, and they are still in market. Somehow, they require a lot trials to get it right, so for nonserious stuff, glucono delta lactone is easier. Also my guess about the traditional way is hard is that is all related to the water hardness and other ions in water

I made silken tofu at home recently just using calcium sulfate and soy milk that I had also made from scratch. I found it very easy and it worked on the first try. I'm in a hard water area so I'm not sure if that makes it easier or not.

"<doing the thing> is easy, you just need to know how to <do the thing>" isn't very helpful.

If you really want to try I can give you a recipe: 1. 180g dried soybean soaked in water overnight 2. drain the water then put in 1100ml water in a food processor 3. grinding for 1 min 4. filter the liquid 5. measure the liquid weight or volume for weight of glucono delta lactone, 3g per 1000g or 1000ml, dissolve it in water as little as possible, and then add to a large bowl big enough to contain the liquid 6. boil the liquid, after boiling turn to mid heat for 5min. Then filter. now you have soy milk 7. remove from heat, stir to dissipate heat 8. slowing pouring to the bowl added with glucono delta lactone, pouring toward the wall not the bottom of the bowl 9. cover the bowl with paper towel or cheese cloth, then the lid, waiting for 30 mins

voila now you have Douhua (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douhua), which often seen in China as a breakfast dish

to get tofu, just drain the water out, to do so put the douhua in some container with holes at bottom and then add weight.

Is the result much better than the stuff I find at the supermarket? Because that sounds like at least on hour of work.

Let me put it this way... It's better in the same way that fresh home made bread is better than store bought bread. Now imagine that you live in a country (like Japan) where the average person thinks that a baguette is essentially a big hotdog bun that has been sitting on a shelf for 2 weeks. That's the equivalent of the tofu that you tend to buy in a supermarket in the US. It is possible to buy good store bought tofu, but usually it is unavailable unless you have a big Asian population nearby. Like bread in France, you really want to go to the tofu store in the morning for your tofu because day old tofu is tasteless and horrible (just like day old bread).

Whether or not you can actually make great tofu at home without a lot of practice is debatable, but at the very least the average person can make something that is worlds apart from the lifeless, bitter chunks of woe that the supermarket calls tofu. If you get a chance to go to a real tofu restaurant in Japan or China, you should leap at the chance. It's just like your first trip to a boulangerie in Paris -- mind blowing.

Not to take away from your point, but Japanese baked goods—especially breads and pastries—are extremely high quality, even if they’ve got a local spin that might turn off the hardcore purists.

By the way, I just bought a homemade kurogoma dofu today from the little shop in my neighborhood here in Kyoto. It’s not “real” tofu, but it’s mind-meltingly great!

I think you missed the point of the grandparent comment. It referred specifically to what "the average person thinks [is] a baguette". I love Japanese baked goods, lots of super light fluffy bread, great pastries. But crusty, fresh baguette is not something I saw much in three years of living in Japan. Every supermarket had bread in a bag that was called バゲット and looked like baguette — but every one got the texture all wrong.

Just like there are places (Asian groceries, etc) to get good tofu in North America, I'm sure there are places to get good baguette in Japan. But the average person would think of what they can get in their local supermarket, which is decidedly not-good.

I like Japanese bread, but I've still yet to see a good baguette in 10 years of living here :-) I'm absolutely certain they exist in some of the big cities, but you have to know where to go. There is a bakery called Chambord that has a have decent baguette, but it drives me crazy because they refuse to bake them before about noon.

Agreed. The bread from bakeries in Japan are the best I've had anywhere; they definitely have a "bread culture" of their own and take it very seriously, and it seemed like almost every bakery in Tokyo was producing bread of remarkable quality. On the other hand, the bread at supermarkets in Japan usually was just white sandwich bread and little else.

I did, in fact, just bring a friend to Paris for their first real baguette, so I got a kick out of your comment. As you say, bread is now spoiled for them. So is cheese. And croissants.

I don't know in Japan but in China I have never seen a "tofu restaurant".

Tofu, of which there are many types, is usually part of dishes and I doubt Chinese want to restrict themselves to tofu in a restaurant...

I’ve eaten at a restaurant in Tokyo that my friend referred to as a “tofu restaurant“. It only served dishes that included tofu in some form. The first dish was a wooden box on a hotplate that the waiter poured a form of soymilk into. It turned into a soft warm tofu paste we could eat about 20 min later. The final dish was a type of cheese cake that was amazing. This was a long time ago and I am (obviously) not an expert on tofu, but it was a very memorable meal.

Edit: spelling

Super interesting. I've never been to China, but I just assumed there must be tofu restaurants. But I guess Buddhism isn't such a powerful force in the country any more. In Japan, there are definitely tofu restaurants, but you have to look for them. Kyoto is quite famous for tofu, but there is a chain of very good tofu restaurants from Fukuoka (the name of which escapes me for the moment). You will also get amazing tofu if you ever eat at a shoujin ryouri restaurant (Japanese Buddhist vegan cuisine -- usually served at temples, but you can find the odd restaurant that's not necessarily part of the temple).

In China every region has its own dishes so I think people would get tofu dishes based on that.

For example Mapo Tofu is a very famous tofu dish and is a Sichuan dish. So although you may be able to order it in most restaurants these days because it is so famous people would probably suggest you go to a good Sichuan restaurant if you were keen to taste a good version.

Conversely, in you find yourselves in a random restaurant the tofu dishes will probably depend on what cuisine that restaurant mostly serves.

True, but mapo tofu is mainly a meat dish.

Edit: as in, despite the name, tofu not really being the focus in terms of texture or flavour. The GP expressed skepticism as "tofu is usually part of dishes and I doubt Chinese want to restrict themselves to tofu in a restaurant"; I don't think mapo tofu is really an exception.

American Mapo Dofu is meat heavy but the versions in Sichuan tend to have less than 2 ounces of meat per serving and it's used as a condiment, not a main attraction.

A tofu dish can have some meat in it.

Tofu is the main texture and main ingredient in Mapo Tofu. The flavour comes from the oil and chilli like in many Sichuan dishes.

There are certainly tofu restaurants in Japan. In Kyoto, I ate at a hundreds-of-years-old restaurant that just serves nothing but tofu seasoned with various kinds of salt.

Well that depends on the kind of tofu you like, how firm it is? What kind of coagulant you like? Glucono delta lactone will make the tofu with a light sour flavor, some traditional way will not. Also water also play a role in. The recipe is easy but definitely not one suits every condition. It is a trial and error to fine tune it to your need.

To be honest, this is one of the easiest dishes I ever tried, and also one hour work is on the short side


This is the best recipe I've found, but I haven't made it yet, still trying to track down a good deal on soybeans.

Super interesting. I'm living in a part of brazil where there is no packaged tofu for sale, so I've made it myself quite a bit. This recipe diverges from most of those I've seen in that it doesn't require a boil before straining out the solid mass. I've got plans to make some more tofu this week, so I'll try this out. Thanks!

Probably too late to edit the above comment, so I'll add a comment.

Since I don't need to/intend to use the solid mass of the beans (that would require cooking it), this recipe worked. I blended the beans, strained the liquid and boiled that and I've got two blocks of tofu in the fridge. It's extremely gratifying to have my tofu making simplified like this.

The number of ingredients something has is not a good proxy for its difficulty.

For example, tapioca only contains Cassava root, but here is how that is made: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4qTxKdjagg

Maybe provide more substantive comments in the future if you don't want down-votes?

For me the heating and blending was always tedious so I really enjoyed using my soy milk maker machine. This is similar to how using a rice cooker makes having rice with meals easier, but much more so since making the soy milk to start is more involved than cooking rice.

I just ordered a Tianyin Soy Milk Maker, hopefully it's not too trashy. Thanks for the idea!

those who downvoting me must never tried to do it

The gentrification of food :(

Local artisans have been a critical part of food culture for hundreds/thousands of years.

Plus, the shop is selling tofu bricks for 2 bucks. I would call this a great example of the opposite of gentrification - bringing something back to its humble roots while allowing for sustainability in the modern economy.

The problem with that sort of artisan is that you never know if it is really artisan stuff, or factory prepared mixtures. Many shops look like artisan shos, but are just selling overpriced factory food. I really became wary of them.

In France where I live, it is really becoming hard to know if they really prepare the baguettes completely by themselves (flour + yeast + cooking) or if they buy ready made mixtures, and only cook them.

Did you even read the article? People leave the shop after seeing tofu being sold for $2 instead of $1

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