Unless you're a vegetarian, chances are you haven't enjoyed much tofu. This humble soybean product has been labeled "health food," but in Asia it's more than that. Being a cheap source of protein, tofu is as common there as cheese is in Europe. Since it's infinitely adaptable, you'll find it used in the day-to-day grub of virtually every Asian culture. The Koreans center entire restaurants on a soft tofu soup called sundubu, while the Chinese are notorious for a delicacy appropriately named "stinky tofu," in which the tofu is fermented in a rotting-vegetable brine until it reeks with the stench of sewer gas and feet. The Indonesians, the Filipinos, the Japanese, the Cambodians and the Thais all count tofu as part of their diet.
Here in Orange County, one of the finest tofus is produced by a factory owned in partnership by two Vietnamese families. On Moran Street, a tiny tributary off the main drag of Little Saigon's Bolsa Street, behind a tiny storefront crammed with all things bean curd, the Dong Phuong Tofu factory has been quietly churning out small batches of the good stuff for more than a decade. Theirs is a firm tofu prized for its tight curd and resilient character, which stands up to a variety of cooking methods—a quality lacking in its crumbly, mass-produced competition.
You can find Dong Phuong's products at your local Asian grocer, but why pay the markup they charge when you get it fresher and cheaper directly from the source? Dong Phuong's price for a brick-sized loaf? One dollar.
And when I say fresh, I mean it. The tofu, stacked in metal trays, is literally hot to the touch, carried out from the production floor for immediate sale, packaged in nothing more than plastic wrap.
But what to do with your $1 investment? The possibilities are limitless, but the simplest approach is always the best. Slice the loaf into thin steaks no more than a quarter of an inch thick and brine in a solution of water, salt and garlic powder. If you've got a mortar and pestle, mash a few garlic cloves and add them to the mix. After the soak, deep fry the tofu in vegetable oil over medium heat, constantly tossing until the pieces float like rafts and glimmer with a golden crust worthy of Fort Knox. Then lift them out, drain on paper towels and serve hot. What results is a light, crispy, salty snack full of tang—and something of a paradox: A fried food that's also good for you.
If you don't feel like the DIY method, Dong Phuong also offers its tofu pre-fried and ready-to-eat. Some are made from the plain tofu, but others are pockmarked with lemon grass and red chile, or studded with wood-wear mushrooms, glass noodles and onion.
But that's not all Dong Phuong has up its sleeves. There's also its other hot product: soybean milk. The juice that is rendered out of the legume itself—this is tofu before the curd-forming coagulants are added—Dong Phuong's soy milk is sold scalding in 64-ounce plastic jugs for a pittance of $1.50. There are two kinds: sweetened and plain. And to read the ingredients list is to appreciate the wholesomeness of the product. The roster includes nothing but soybeans, filtered water and sugar.
I take mine the way the a billion Chinese do: warmed, as breakfast alongside a salty, deep-fried cruller called youtiao (basically a donut). Dunking is not just acceptable—it's required.
Now there's an idea to get tofu past its health-food rep: Pair it with a donut.