Call it a delicacy

February 19, 2008 02:23 pm

There is a poem I read about tofu in Midkiff Library under a giant outrigger canoe that is attached with bolts over many walls of bookshelves. I was sitting on the floor with my legs crossed under me not knowing that I would think of the poem very often, even almost a decade later in Oregon.

Flipping through the hand-bound book, I was probably attracted to the poem because it was so small — not more than one stanza and seven short lines. In the poem, someone builds a fire and lets the fuel turn to embers. They fill a pail with water and steady it over the white-hot coals. In the pail, as I am peering into my memory of the poem, there is a block of tofu and tiny fish caught from a stream swimming around it. The person with the pail, the fire builder, the collector of stream fish, is cooking.

As the water is slowly heated, the fish are driven to push their way into the porous soft tofu, where, in their boiling end, they burst. I don’t remember what the poet wrote exactly, but the bursting was likened to habits found in space or of aerial fireworks.

Call it a delicacy.

It’s not that I crave exploded things. But the small poem, maybe not even 50 words long, created this entire day dream for me, more portable than a suitcase.

The night time, the pail with the thick wire bail, the sound of the nearby stream and of the sloshing of the water over the fire, the fish (they are see-through): all details I made up to carry the recipe with me. The poem was like ink touched to water where it spreads.

Tofu is like a soy cheese. It is either adopted into households or shunned — an odious white block of the unreferencable type. But maybe not so. Draw a three-dimensional cube like the ones you doodle in the margins of your notebook, and you are halfway there. It’s familiar and unthreatening, like a building block, even if you haven’t tasted it.

If there’s one thing good people don’t look forward to about the future, it is anonymous food — nutrition capsules, powdered steak. Scan across the pantry shelf of the future and an aseptic package of tofu fits in just fine.

The consumption of tofu is one unfair, bulleted reason a person might use to criticize someone who they perceive as lily-livered. It is also a food that for some reason represents a healthful diet.

Whether it’s consumed or not can become such a badge of who we are.

I think tofu probably isn’t the world’s healthiest food and it can be more mass produced than some would like to believe. The soybeans that tofu is made of are very often genetically modified plants — just keep that in your mind’s file.

On the other hand, tofu is a fine thing to keep in your kitchen — equally good pureed into a smoothie with strawberries or marinated in shoyu, garlic and three drops of sesame oil for a stir fry. A very soft tofu simmered in a sauce can mimic the mouthfeel of animal fat but not cost so much in unbeneficial calories. And the ricotta in my sister’s baptism lasagna was actually crumbled tofu.

Tofu’s talent is that it is an effective base, a background player that lets other flavors do the talking. It also provides texture variation. Consider the crispness of a strip of sauteed red bell pepper on the same plate with the soft white sponge that is tofu.

And so, it’s a tribute to any other food that is cooked with it, a platform upon which we can taste what’s beside it.

It’s the container of the memory of a poem I search for in used book stores but can’t find.


Eden Kruger is the news assistant at The Observer. Reach her at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .