At Mrs. Cheng's Soybean Products in Kalihi, president Mao Tzeng, above, oversees a process that turns dry soybeans into pristine blocks of tofu.

A taste of tofu

All tubs are not created equal

An aura of sameness surrounds tofu. White-on-white, with a texture of non-varying smoothness, it's easy to believe that one tub's the same as another.

Sheesh, with only three ingredients -- soybeans, water and a little something to make it gel -- how much variation could there be?

Plenty, it turns out.

A tofu tasting is an eye-opening thing, especially for those who've been eating it all their lives, buying whatever brand's on sale.

We tried it, gathering up all the locally made tofus -- Aala, Aloha, Hawaii, Honda, Kanai and Mrs. Cheng's -- and tasting them side-by-side, unlabeled. About the only thing similar was appearance. It took some firm concentration to keep all the little white cubes straight.

The tasters were three chefs with backgrounds in Asian cooking (Hideaki "Santa" Miyoshi of Tokkuri-Tei, Roy Yamaguchi of Roy's restaurants and Hiroshi Fukui of L'Uraku), joined by two dedicated tofu eaters from the Vegetarian Society of Hawaii (Elaine Johnson and Brian Hart).

Master sommelier Chuck Furuya also sat in, wine experts possess palates trained to expose subtleties in flavor.

Tom Kan scoops coagulated soy milk into a mold, where the water will be pressed out.

The favorites, scoring well with almost everyone, came from two small tofu-makers -- Mrs. Cheng's in Kalihi, for both its silky soft tofu and extra-firm nigari tofu, and Honda in Wahiawa, which makes a semi-firm type.

The point of this exercise, though, was not so much to stage a contest as to characterize the differences. What we found were flavors ranging from very light to very "soy-beany," textures from silky to grainy.

The ideal, across the board among the tasters, was balance. A clear, clean taste of soybeans was desired, without distracting acidity or a "tinny" flavor. The ideal texture: creamy, but not watery. "Like a creme brulee," Yamaguchi said.

The tofu-makers themselves are probably the best to consult on this matter of taste:

Mrs. Cheng's is owned by Mao Tzeng and his wife, Mei-Liang. They were pharmacists in Taiwan who moved to Hawaii in 1984 for the sake of educational opportunities for their two children.

They took over the company from Hui C. Cheng, who had been making tofu in Palolo for years, but was ready to retire.

Kan lowers a block of finished tofu into a water bath where it will be cut into individual portions. Kan is a 23-year tofu-making veteran.

While they were not tofu veterans, Mao Tzeng said, his aunt had a tofu shop in Taiwan. "So I had the basic idea since I was a child."

He studied up, with Cheng and with experts in Japan. In the process, Tzeng said, he has tried every kind of tofu.

He defines quality as a good bean flavor, with a bit of sweetness and an aftertaste "like spring water," plus a texture that is very smooth and not too porous, so it holds up when served or cooked.

The scent of soybean is also critical, he said. "You can smell it. It's aroma. That's good tofu."

The company's main line is its extra-firm nigari tofu, which Tzeng said is a style traditional in China, but was also common generations ago in Japan. Nigari is Japanese for magnesium chloride, drawn from the minerals in sea water, the coagulant used to turn soy milk into this specific type of tofu.

Mrs. Cheng's Soybean Products also makes soy milk, cheese, tofu pudding and okara (soybean meal) in a modest factory on Kalihi Street, every day but Saturday.

Honda Tofu was founded in 1917 by Eizo and Tsuyo Honda, eventually passing to their son Haruo and his wife, Josephine. The company is now in the hands of the third generation, Haruo's son Dennis and his wife, Dulce.

Jinmei Guang reaches deep into the water to pull up blocks of tofu for packaging.

Production runs daily except Sunday in the bottom floor of a two-story building in Wahiawa. The second-generation Hondas live on top.

Tofu-making begins with soaking and cooking the soybeans (Honda uses a mixture of yellow and black-eyed white beans; Mrs. Cheng's uses an organic black-eyed variety). The beans are then ground and the soy milk extracted. A coagulant is stirred in and the resulting mix is poured into molds, pressed and cut into the familiar cubes.

At Honda, as at Mrs. Cheng's, the stirring of the milk and coagulant is done by hand. Dulce Honda says it's a critical step.

"My husband's hand and my father-in-law's hand are different. My father-in-law's made the tofu a little firmer."

She knows all about differences in flavor and texture. The family conducted its own tasting of local tofu brands a few years ago. Two of her aunties, she said, could correctly identify every brand.

"I like the our brand best. We used to joke and say, 'It's must be the Wahiawa water.' "

Buying notes

Mrs. Cheng's Nigari Tofu is sold at 99 Ranch Market, Safeway and Times stores in the Honolulu area only, Foodland in Liliha and Market City and at health-food stores. The soft tofu is sold mainly to restaurants, but is available by pre-order at the factory, 233 Kalihi St. Call 841-2571.

Honda Tofu is sold in double-packs at Sam's Club and Costco. It is also available in Wahiawa markets, at Safeway in Manoa and Star in Kahala and Moiliili. Or, visit the factory, 117 Mango St. Call 621-5603.


A stir-fry dish is
a happy home for tofu

Dulce Honda of Honda Tofu has a simple suggestion for a hot pot of tofu. She calls it a "quick sauce":

Combine 2 tablespoons each of oyster sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, minced garlic and minced green onions in a pan and heat. Add a block of tofu, cubed, and toss. Cook until heated through. Add kim chee if you like.

Tofu is also a natural in stir-fries, especially the firm varieties. It adds protein and substance to a dish heavy in healthy vegetables. This dish can be adapted for vegetarians by substituting vegetable broth and a meat substitute for the Canadian bacon.

Tofu and Snow Peas

1 (19-ounce) package very firm tofu, in cubes
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 cup thinly sliced red onion
2 slices Canadian bacon, in thin strips
1 (8-ounce) package button mushrooms, sliced
12 ounces fresh snow peas, rinsed and trimmed
>> Marinade
1 cup chicken broth
1/3 cup tamari
2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

Combine marinade ingredients. Pour over tofu, cover and refrigerate a few hours or, optimally, overnight.

Heat oil, crushed pepper, garlic and ginger over medium-high heat, 2 minutes. Add onions and bacon; saute 2 minutes. Add slightly drained tofu and mushrooms, and discard marinade. Cook 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Add snow peas and cook just until peas are heated through, about 1 minute. Serves 6.

Nutritional information unavailable.

Cox News Service contributed to this report.

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