19 October 2008

A shortage of fresh tofu

Our friend Tom in Illinois left a comment on a topic I posted a few days ago in which I invited readers to send me cookbooks, saying: "I'd send you The Book of Tofu from my collection, but I'm not sure you and Walt would be up to it."

Well, we probably wouldn't be up to it, but not for the reasons anybody might think. Actually, we love tofu and we would eat it often, if we could just buy it here in Saint-Aignan. We used to buy and cook with fresh tofu all the time in San Francsico. And one of our favorite Chinese take-away items from a restaurant in our neighborhood there was called Family-Style Tofu. I miss that. We would have it about once a week.

Tofu in a can from Taiwan, via Tang Frères in Paris

You see, they don't sell fresh tofu in the supermarkets here in Saint-Aignan and Noyers-sur-Cher. Now I admit I've never asked the customer-service people at the grocery stores if they could order it, but I'm sure I would be met with blank stares if I did. I'd probably have to explain what tofu is — it's called pâte de soja in French, or soy paste. That's another way of saying (soy)bean curd, I guess.

When we were in Blois a few days ago and went shopping at the Asian-products market called Paris Store, we did see fresh tofu. We didn't buy any because we hadn't planned anything using it and it tends to go moldy pretty fast, but now we know we can go back there an buy some fresh bean curd when we want it. It's a 45-minute drive from Saint-Aignan at minimum, though, so we aren't like to go every week. That would be fuel-foolish.

Our substitute for fresh bean curd up to now has been "Tow-Fu" in a can. I'm not kidding. You can see the pictures in this post. It's the tofu equivalent of canned green beans — not nearly as good as fresh, but better than no tofu at all. The main problem with tofu-in-a-can is it's tough texture, not the taste. Of course, tofu doesn't have any taste to speak of. But it needs to have a silkier texture than the canned stuff.

Here's the other side of the tin, showing
that it's Made in Taiwan.

Up to now, we have bought tofu-in-a-can at the big Tang Frères supermarket in the 13th arrondissement when we go to Paris. We only go a couple of times a year, and each time we bring back half a dozen tins. We've also brought back fresh tofu from Paris. Once we brought back too much and some of it went bad before we could eat it all. That was a waste.

Anyway, the trip to Paris is just too expensive for us to go more often, and too complicated with the dog. And it's far too long a drive if you try to drive up there and back the same day. Been there, done that, and have sworn off doing it again.

Maybe we could make our own tofu. I have a recipe. I'll post it here. It comes from a book called Chinese Cookery by Rose Cheng and Michele Morris, published by HPBooks in 1981.

Click on the image to enlarge it.

Problem is, I don't know where I would get soybeans. Or gypsum. I could use white vinegar — that's easy to get here, but I mostly use it as a cleaning product. And we don't have any shortage of water. Do you think I could use French white beans or some other variety of dried beans to make curd?

It would be very hard to live as a vegetarian in France. I know from reading around on Internet forums that people who follow vegetarian diets have trouble finding restaurant food they can eat when they travel here. French people mostly believe you can't get balanced nutrition without eating meat and meat products. They tend to feel sorry for vegetarians, as if they had some kind of disability. Why else wouldn't you eat meat, unless your digestive system is just not up to digesting them?

Many salads in French restaurants have more meat than greens in them. Okay, that's probably an exaggeration, but it's the impression you get when you first order such a salad in a Paris restaurant. Three lettuce leaves and half a pound of lardons...

And here are the ingredients: soy, water, salt.
No problem with that.

Besides, if you are really strict about your vegetarianism, you have to give up nearly all French cheeses. They are made with animal rennet. And soups, at least in restaurants, because they are often made with chicken or beef stock. No more soupe à l'oignon gratinée — the soup is based on beef stock and then there's that cheese melted on top.

I just need to decide whether I'd rather live in France without tofu or in America with tofu. That's going to be a hard one...

Diets with no meat. Diets with no carbohydrates. I don't know if I would feel more deprived if I didn't eat meat or if I didn't eat potatoes, beans, or bread. I think I'll just continue eating a little bit of everything. At my age, if that kills me... well, I've lived a good life.


  1. I'd vote for France without Tofu. But I'm biased. :)

    We can get now fresh tofu at an Asian épicerie in Béziers. I only really eat it when I make spicy Ma Po Tofu, so only buy one or two at a time.

    You have a Paris Store an hour away??? I'm jealous!

  2. "a little bit of everything" sounds like the best diet.


  3. I agree, Ken, 'a little of what you fancy does you good' comes to mind!

  4. I would vote for "France without Tofu" as well..not sure about it!!

  5. I used to make tofu from scratch with soybeans and nigari. It's a sticky, messy, long project and of course the tofu doesn't keep so you have to use it up quickly. There's also a byproduct, okara, which can be frozen.

    The trickiest part of the procedure is when you press the tofu. Never use a can of paint as a weight.

    Nowadays you can find tofu in any average supermarket, water-packed and marked with an expiration date. It's our Wednesday staple, usually stir-fried.

  6. Carolyn, do you think I can use other beans to make the curd? Or just soybeans?

  7. Ken, wouldn't the soy be the source of protein in the Tofu? I wonder if your non-soy "tofu" would be similar, but just lower in protein?


  8. Tow-fu? Well, at least it's not toe-fu (I don't think I'd even look at the ingredients for that.)

  9. Make tofu with beans other than soy? I'm not sure. Would it even be tofu? In my frank opinion, all other beans are better than soybeans! I know you can use other cooked, dried beans to make bean balls (just doing it now with kidney beans) and bean loaves, so why not add nigari to some cooked beans with a mild flavor and see how it goes.

    I have a tofu recipe that calls for 1.5 C soyflour, 4.5 C boiling water, and 6 T lemon juice, but my note says it made very soft tofu. It doesn't get pressed, just drained through cheesecloth. As I recall, it wouldn't have been easy to press.

    But if you can't get soybeans, you probably can't get soyflour.

    Let me consult my cookbooks and if I find anything I'll get back to you.

  10. We don't eat tofu very often. I'm not very fond of it except in asian dishes.

    The only tofu I've ever seen in can here is at the asian market and it's been flavored.

    You have to use soybeans to make tofu, and although it's not too hard to make it's not really worth the mess and bother.

  11. Tom, I just thought making tofu sounded like an interesting project. Especially since we can't get it here, and we do like it in soups and stir fries. I'll take your word for it that it's not a good idea.

  12. I just discovered your blog. I am former West-coaster living about 45 minutes on the other side of Blois from you.

    My husband is French and yes, the French need for meat is alive and well! Due to my low-meat diet, he nearly salivates when walking past the meat sections at the grocery store - kind of like a cartoon character with his tongue rolling on the floor and his eyes bulging out.

    I haven't been looking for fresh tofu, but I did find the little boxed tofu on the shelf at LeClerc - for a whopping 4 euros. What is it in the U.S. - 99 cents?


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