You’ve heard about that squishy, cream-coloured food item; you’ve seen it on the menu at most restaurants that serve Oriental cuisine—yet many of you will ask the chef to replace tofu with cottage cheese.
The usual complaint against tofu is that it is tasteless and has a peculiar smell, and that is why most people are squeamish about ordering it. Chef Krishan Pal, of the Asian Stone Grill Lounge, Square One mall, New Delhi, which has a tofu festival through April, says: “People frequenting our restaurant gave us the feedback that they found the taste of tofu very bland. They liked tofu dishes which were spicy and that is what we have tried to do during the festival. The response has been positive.” The restaurant is currently serving 30 tofu dishes and the chef introduces five new dishes to the menu each day, just for that day.
Actually chefs and nutritionists say it is the bland taste that gives tofu a surprising versatility. Tofu is like a sponge waiting to soak up flavour—it can be made to taste sweet, hot, spicy, salty or even bland (to temper or highlight other ingredients) and can be served at all temperatures, from freezing to piping hot. Besides it is low on fat, cholesterol and calories and is a good source of protein, calcium and iron.
Even though dieticians Sheela Krishnaswamy, director, wellness, at ChiHealth, a nutrition consulting firm in Bangalore, and Delhi-based Shikha Sharma say tofu is becoming somewhat fashionable, especially among those switching to vegetarian food, or those who like to try out authentic Asian cuisine, both add that not many people in India are really aware of how healthy it is.
Though a lot like paneer (cottage cheese) in appearance, tofu is quite different from its milk-based counterpart in terms of nutrients—primarily because it is a plant-based product rather than an animal-derived one.
Milk is widely accepted in vegetarian diets across India, which makes it easy to forget that it is an animal food, containing saturated fats. Tofu, on the other hand, is a zero-cholesterol food with mostly unsaturated fats. Hence, it is better suited for both diabetes and heart patients. Paneer is usually not recommended for those with diabetes or heart patients, explains Sharma, since it contains saturated fats.
Nalin Nag, senior consultant in internal medicine and allergy and immunology, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi, adds: “Tofu is a plant-derived product. The fats in it are any day healthier than animal-derived fats.” Plus it is the leaner protein of the two, with less fat and calories overall as well.
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In addition, Sharma notes that tofu reduces hormonal problems in menopausal women, besides providing protein, calcium and iron comparable with paneer. Also, she adds: “A lot of people are unable to digest cottage cheese, given its gassy nature. Since tofu is light, it is easy to digest.” Krishnaswamy adds a caveat though: “Usually people who are lactose-intolerant find cottage cheese gas-forming. For others, it’s not a problem.”
Krishnaswamy advises adding 50g of tofu a day, two or three times, in your weekly diet, but adds that you should check whether you are allergic to soya. “People should introduce it very gradually to their diets and continue to use it if there is no allergic reaction. Also, those on a low-protein diet should avoid tofu,” she says.
If you feel that tofu is too bland to incorporate in your meal plan, chef Feroz Ahmed, Zaffrani Zaika, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi, has a suggestion: “The main problem is that tofu tastes too bland and some people also find its smell unappetizing. I always marinate tofu in soya sauce, chillies and sesame oil before using it in any recipe. It gives tofu a slight spicy taste.” Tofu can also be used to replace less healthy and fattening products such as cheese while cooking, he adds.
The two most common varieties of tofu are firm and silken. The former acts as a great substitute for meat or paneer, and its texture allows it to be fried and baked. The smoother version is a better choice for dips, smoothies and spreads.
Unlike paneer, where skim milk tends to yield a firmer or drier texture, firm tofu is usually higher in fat. The softer the tofu, the less the fat content usually.
Packaged tofu in a Tetra Pak-type container will not require any refrigeration till the pack is opened. Once open, it should be rinsed and stored, submerged in water in a container, in the fridge, where it will last up to a week. Ensure that the water does not dry up, otherwise the tofu may smell sour.