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The Chinese have done a LOT of tasty things with soybeans. One of those things, of course, is tofu. The great thing about it is that because it’s so mildly flavored, it takes on whatever flavor profile you add to it. When you think of tofu, you’re probably envisioning one of those wobbly white blocks that look like something between feta cheese and jello. But there are so many different kinds out there, each with its own texture, flavor, and purpose. Here’s an introduction to some of the majors:
This is a very soft tofu. It falls apart easily, so it must be handled very delicately. You often see it used in Mapo Tofu or cut up into tiny cubes in Miso Soup. It comes in either the plastic white boxes that you see often in both Western and Chinese grocery stores, as well as sealed in small boxes (they look kind of like juice boxes) that don’t have to be refrigerated. It gets used in recipes like Mapo Tofu and Tofu with 1000 Year Old Eggs (SO much better than it sounds).
This is one of the most common kinds of tofu, and the one that you probably see most often in your local grocery store. It has a wide range of applications. You can pan fry it as a side dish, substitute it for meat in stir fries, or put it into soups and braises.
It comes in vacuum-sealed packages and is most commonly labeled “Spiced Tofu.” It has a dark brown outside and a whiter inside. It’s usually prepared thinly sliced, and you can eat it raw, tossed with a little sesame oil, white pepper and soy, or throw them into a wok full of vegetables for a stir fry.
This type of tofu is compressed into thin sheets. In the US, this is often pre-packaged, but in Beijing, we like to buy it fresh a few sheets at a time. We chiffonade them for stir-fries.
These aren’t actually noodles. They’re sort of similar to tofu skin, but are cut in the shape of thin noodles. We cook them with vegetables, a bit of pork, and lots of long hot peppers for a yummy stir fry.
These are a bit more eccentric and may be intimidating for the first-time Chinese chef. They come dried and need to be soaked overnight before cooking. If we’re in a lazy mood, we just stir fry them with vegetables, but they are also absolutely delicious with braised pork or hot pot.
These are fried pieces of tofu that end up with a “puffy texture.” They’re awesome in soups, served with hot pot, or used in braised dishes.
These are a thin tofu skin folded and tied into little knots. They’re primarily used in braised dishes or soups, as all the flavor of a sauce or soup they’re cooked in gets caught into the little folds of each knot. You can find them pre-made in the Chinese grocery store’s refrigerated section.