Let me first state that I love tofu. So if you are a tofu naysayer, you may want to just move along right now. I’m not even sure when I first had tofu. It was definitely not until I was in my 20s. I grew up with a pretty typical 70s food upbringing. About as exotic as our household got in a culinary sense–that is ,until I forced things like quiche lorraine and buying a wok onto the household when I was in high school–were things like hard-shell ground beef tacos or ground beef spaghetti or, once or twice. we even had ground beef sukiyaki.
So, I definitely don’t recall having tofu probably at least until I was in grad school or perhaps even later. It may have even been my Korean American sister-in-law who first introduced me to it, in getting my Scando-German family to try Korean food. At any rate, at some point over the years, I came to love it.
And what’s not to love? I know the naysayers out there will make statements like, “But it doesn’t taste like anything” or “It has a weird texture.” Both of which are actually true statements, but also part of the charm of tofu. One of the great things about tofu is its ability to be a flavor chameleon, taking on the essence of whatever surrounds it. If it’s curried, it will dye itself the hue of turmeric and soak up spices, hot or mild. Soaked in soy sauce, it gets salty and brown. Put in a smoothie, it will turn with whatever fruit you blend it with–berries, bananas, whatever. I recently had BBQ tofu at a vegan soul food resto (yes, you read that correctly). Tofu is adaptable. Tofu is a survivor. Darwin would have like it…
Over the years since I got on board with tofu, I’ve had it in many forms–silken, firm, extra firm, fried, cubed, free form, masquerading as egg salad (yum), etc,. etc. I thought I’d tried it all. Little did I know that there was an even more enjoyable form out there in the world to try. And now I can say that I’d never truly experienced the true joy of tofu until I found the yuba.
For the uninitiated, yuba is, for lack of a better term, the dermis of the tofu. Yup, it’s tofu skin. And like skin, it comes in layers, it’s sort of wrinkly and thin and peels away in sheets. The Soy Info Center website actually provides a very lengthy history of yuba, which says that one of its etymological origins comes from the same Chinese word as “old lady,” because it resembles wrinkly old people skin. Ok, so that doesn’t make it sound very appetizing, but believe me, the texture, albeit wrinkly, is just plain cool. And I think it’s the texture of yuba that I’m really so enamored with. I mean, without being so thin and sheet-like and layered, it’s really just plain, old tofu. But the texture is just so fun. Peel it down to a single sheet and it’s pasta. Leave it in layers, cut it into strips and it’s raw phyllo dough before butter and the oven turn into into a flaky delight. Throw those strips into some boiling water and it doubles as faux pasta or noodles depending on how you cut it. Microwave it and it will start to get a bit crispy on the edges–yum–like when you fry ravioli (come to think of it, it would probably make good ravioli). I haven’t tried to bake it yet–except for as a cheese substitute layer in eggplant parm, which gave what can sometimes otherwise be a sort of mushy dish a nice bite. In its most natural state, it has this really pleasing toothsomeness–like properly cooked al dente pasta–it just has good tooth feel. Biting into it is a pleasure–it gives, but only just so, and then is soft and melty. It’s sort of fun to play with, as well. It’s one of those things that just begs for the tongue to engage in mouth gymnastics by trying to work its layers apart. My tongue hasn’t had so much fun (with food, that is) since I trained it to get corn on the cob out of my braces in high school.
To my knowledge, yuba is not common–at least not in the U.S. According to the Source of All Online Knowledge (aka Wikipedia), yuba is a byproduct from the soy milk making process. When boiled, the milk forms a skin “composed primarily of a soy-lipid complex,” which is then skimmed and dried to form the skin. Wikipedia also says it’s often used as a wrap for dim sum. Well, no wonder I like it so much. Adaptable tofu!
Despite my previous soy joys, I’d never seen not heard of it until a friend took me to the Temescal Farmer’s Market in Oakland. It’s actually made locally, by Oakland-based Hodo Soy, a cottage, handmade tofu company. Hodo is run by a Vietnamese American guy who left his corporate job to make tofu, which, in my opinion, is just yet another reason to love it. Apparently he missed the quality of tofu he’d gotten as a child in Vietnam, so he started experimenting with making his own. As stated on the Hodo website, “hodo” means “good bean” in Chinese. The site also claims that yuba, a Japanese word referring to tender skin, is often called (and I quote), “tofu’s sexy and elegant cousin.” I like it! Even more! And, get this quote: “This is one of the most prized forms of soy: delicate and labor-intensive. When made fresh, yuba is unlike any other type of food and is prized for its texture and creaminess.” Mmmmm…
(As an aside, the Hodo site also features a Tofu Lover’s wheel that lets you identify ‘What kind of tofu lover are you?” – check it out to find out your type, soy lovahs! I’m a “Gourmand,” btw.)
Hodo’s yuba come in plain sheets or prepared as spicy tofu strips–which taste a lot like sesame noodles. I’ve only found them at the farmer’s market and Whole Foods in the Bay Area, but Hodo recently started an overnight delivery service. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal notes that yuba are beginning to make their way into high-end restaurants throughout the country. For me, this menu addition cannot happen fast enough.
In the meantime, I’ll be keeping myself in yuba with my bi-monthly pilgrimage to the parking lot of the Claremont DMV on Sundays for the farmer’s market. Yuba, I love thee–you can be the sexy, elegant cousin to a block of extra firm in my fridge any day.