One of my favorite restaurants in New York City is Kyotofu in Hell’s Kitchen.
I’d walked by the place for years and hadn’t been tempted to go in – a restaurant based around tofu just didn’t hold much appeal for me. But one day when my vegetarian son was fed up with pizza and Chinese food, we decided to give it a try. Which is how I discovered that freshly made tofu is as different from the store-bought variety as a fresh loaf of crusty sour dough is different from Wonder Bread.
My favorite dish at Kyotofu is a pristine white mound of silken tofu (made daily in the restaurant) served with three different sauces, olive oil and tomato, soy and sesame, and kuromitsu (made from unrefined brown sugar). The dish is simple and perfect – the cool, ethereal tofu balanced by the dark, earthy, flavor-packed sauces.
When I recently discovered Andrea Nguyen’s beautiful cookbook, Asian Tofu: Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook it at Home, I decided to see if I could duplicate Kyotofu’s
wonderful appetizer. It turns out that making silken tofu is easy, and that yes, my homemade version was as good as Kyotofu’s.
It does take a little preparation, however. Silken tofu only contains three ingredients: good water, good dried soybeans and food grade gypsum (calcium sulfate). It’s not worth making unless you have the best quality of each on hand.
Food grade gypsum is used by home brewers, and is available at beer-making supply shops and on-line. My husband happens to be a beer-maker (an amazingly good one, lucky me), so I had a supply of gypsum available – it looks a lot like powdered chalk. As for water, if yours has chlorine in it, you will need to filter it, or buy/collect some good spring water.*
The soybeans can be found at health food stores, Asian markets and some grocery stores, or can be ordered on-line. I bought mine over the internet from Fairview Farms in Iowa, a family-owned business that sells non-GMO “Laura” soybeans. The beans are excellent,
big, yellow-skinned and very fresh, but they aren’t organic as far as I can tell. The ordering process was simple using a credit card and the beans arrived here in New Hampshire in under a week.
The first step in making silken tofu is to make rich soy milk. The soy beans are soaked overnight until plump, then ground with water in a food processor or blender to a thick slurry. This is then heated with more water, strained, and heated again (soy needs to be cooked throughly to make it digestible). The milk is then cooled and mixed with gypsum, which acts as a coagulant. This mixture is then gently steamed until it sets. The cooked tofu is refrigerated for several hours, after which it is ready to eat.
One trick I learned from Nguyen is that ingredients like citrus rind and maple syrup can be mixed into the soy milk before it is steamed. The results are like no tofu you will ever buy from a grocery store, good enough to turn even tofu-haters into tofu lovers.
The recipes below are based on those in Asian Tofu; if you like making things from scratch, I recommend you pick up a copy or take it out of your local library (though be warned, it is not strictly vegan or even vegetarian, though it does contain both sorts of recipes ). And while you’re at it, look for Andrea Nguyen’s other cookbooks – they’re all terrific.
Rich Soy Milk
- 6 ounces dried soybeans, rinsed, then soaked overnight at room temperature until swollen and soft (soaking time depends on temperature – if your house is cold it will take longer)
- 4-5 cups of water
- you will also need a strainer lined with muslin or a clean linen or flour sack dishtowel
Combine the soy beans with 2 cups of water (you can use the soaking water, or use fresh water) in a food processor or blender. Pulse the mixture until the beans are chopped into
very small pieces. There should be no large pieces or whole beans left in the mixture; it will be quite pale and fluffy.
Pour the mixture into a large pot. Swirl 1½ cups of water in the bowl of the food processor or the blender to coax out any remaining bean puree, then add this to the pot. Turn the heat to low and, stirring frequently to keep the bottom of the pot from burning, bring the mixture to a simmer.
A white froth will float on top of the mixture, which makes it a little hard to see if the mixture is simmering or not, so peek beneath the froth from time to time to check. When the mixture comes to a simmer, let it bubble for several minutes, then turn off the heat.
Allow the mixture in the pot to steep off the heat for 5 or 10 minutes, while you prepare the strainer. Rinse the muslin or other liner with cool water, then line the strainer with the wet cloth. Place the strainer over a large bowl or pot to catch the soy milk.
Scoop the hot soybean mixture into the lined strainer, pressing down hard on the pureed beans (the “lees”) to extract all the milk from them. When all the liquid has drained, twist the top of the cloth closed and squeeze as much more liquid as you can from the lees. Finally mix about 1/2 cup of water into the lees and give them another squeeze. (The leftover lees can be added to soups or stews, or stir-fried with vegetables. In Japan they are often sold as animal feed – my chickens love them).
Return the milk to the pot (be sure to rinse it out first) and bring it to a simmer over low hit, stirring often to prevent scorching. Let the milk bubble slowly for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour the milk into a clean container (a metal bowl is good, because it helps to cool the milk quickly). Allow it to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until cold.
Makes about 3 cups.
- 3 cups chilled rich soy milk (if the milk you made measures less than this, add enough water to it to make 3 cups)
- flavorings, if desired, such as grated orange or lemon rind (use organic fruit and wash well), maple syrup, etc.
- 1½ teaspoons food-grade gypsum
- heat-proof ramekins or custard cups
- a large pot with a lid
- a steamer rack to fit the pot
Put enough water into the pot so that it comes up to just below the steamer rack; put the lid on the pot. Turn on the heat and bring the water to a gentle simmer.
Meanwhile, combine the gypsum with about 2 teaspoons of water – just enough to make a paste. Stir the gypsum slurry into the cold soy milk and stir very well to combine completely.
Divide the soy milk between the ramekins (how many you need will depend on their size – probably around 5 or 6). At this point, you may add flavorings to the soy milk, such as a teaspoon or two of maple syrup or a pinch of freshly grated citrus rind.
Place the ramekins on the rack over the gently simmering water and return the lid to the pot. You may need to cook the tofu in batches, but that is fine. The tofu is done when it is set and no longer liquid in the center. How long this takes will depend on the size of your ramekins, but will probably be 15-20 minutes. A skewer inserted in the center of the tofu will leave a small hole behind when they are ready.
Lift the ramekins from the rack and set them on a tray to cool to room temperature. Cover the cooled tofu with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours before serving. To unmold, run a knife around the sides of the ramekin to loosen the tofu, place a plate on top of the ramekin and invert. You may also serve the tofu in the ramekin.
Silken Tofu Serving Suggestions:
These ramekins are delicious with warm maple syrup and toasted walnuts. Or, serve them in Kyotofu’s style with three dipping sauces.
My three dipping sauces are:
- Equal parts chopped cilantro and basil, mixed with grated fresh garlic and good olive oil
- Equal parts fish sauce, water, and lime juice with a pinch of sugar, sliced limes, and hot pepper flakes
- 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil, 1 teaspoon maple syrup, 2 tablespoons water, 2 chopped scallions.
*Many people in NH rely on wells rather than municipal water supplies, and sometimes the wells provide water that’s a little too full of iron, or even arsenic. Which is why locals always know where there’s a good spring from which to collect pristine water. You’ll see people by the side of the road with empty gallon jugs, holding them under an endlessly gushing pipe. No one ever seems to know who put the pipe there, who it was who decided to share that bountiful spring, because it happened a long time ago. Talk about paying it forward. I’m pretty sure no matter how much of a jerk that person was in life, sharing that water supply was enough to get him or her into heaven.