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Zen and the Art of Tofu

[whitespace] Tofu Food for Thought: Tofu appreciation requires as much patience and wisdom to master as the art of Zen, but those who have done it swear their inner being is all the better for it.

George Saakestad

Finding peace, love and understanding in a quivering gray mass

By Joanne Eglash

JUST WHAT DO ZEN AND TOFU have in common? For starters, they both can appear inscrutable to the uninitiated. They have attracted both disparagers and devotees, and they're often relegated to the category of "typically Californian trends" by my relatives in Ohio.

While Zen admittedly hasn't captivated the attention of the average All-American Hamburger Eater, tofu's reputation has improved as much as Paula Jones' appearance. According to some widely publicized research, soy products (such as tofu) may reduce the likelihood of everything from cancer to road rage.

A recent edition of the Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource newsletter touts the life-affirming attributes of soy-based foods like tofu. It notes they contain chemicals called phytoestrogens, and that studies "suggest that these plant-based estrogens may help reduce menopausal symptoms and the risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis."

While the newsletter cautions that it's premature to swallow all the health claims as gospel, it does praise tofu as an excellent protein source and a low-fat, low-cholesterol meat alternative.

The popular alternative-medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil similarly believes the chemicals in soybeans can aid the quality of life. "They may protect against some cancers, including prostate cancer in men and breast cancer in women," he writes.

Flying high from such publicity, tofu has spread its wings and soared beyond specialty stores and onto your local Safeway shelves. So lack of availability is no excuse for avoiding tofu.

The Other White Meat(less)

UNFORTUNATELY, TOFU can-not seem to escape its bad reputation among the uninitiated, despite its health-enhancing press. My own exceptionally unscientific poll revealed some rather strong anti-tofu reactions.

"Ewwww! Gross!" exclaims my 4-year-old neighbor Casey when offered a quivering cube of the white stuff.

Her mother was apologetically in agreement. "I know we should eat it, " she admits. "But there's something about the texture that reminds me of the raw garden snail I ate to win a bet when I was 8 years old."


Broadening my research, I invited three friends to a local bagel spot--my treat, but they had to order bagels with tofu spread. The subjects: Boston-born Jane; Kelly--who, despite 11 years in California, still introduces herself as "from Michigan"--and Jim (born and raised in Santa Cruz, and proud of it).

"Tofu spread!?" Jane exclaimed in a tone of horror. "That is just disgusting to think about! That's the kind of stuff my mother warned me about when I told her I was moving to California."

She quickly ordered (and paid for) a chocolate-chip bagel with "real" cream cheese, then sniffed the topping suspiciously to check its veracity.

"Tofu," Kelly said dreamily, "reminds me of that solid white paste I used to eat in kindergarten." Her order: a peanut butter bagel with strawberry jam.

Jim shook his head sadly. "You two have no appreciation for healthy, tasty food," he intoned virtuously, then loudly ordered a whole-wheat bagel with a double serving of tofu spread.

It was at this juncture that I had my epiphany. Consuming tofu is like practicing Zen. Raw tofu is an unattractive, ashen-hued blob that requires courage to eat, an ability to recognize its potential beyond its inscrutable exterior, or parents like Jim's, who raised kids on tofu, not Oscar Mayer, wieners.

Zen is similar, except that it is (a) colorless (at least to the untrained eye), and (b) not typically served at weekend barbecues--even in California.

Following this newfound insight, I sought out practitioners of tofu or Zen. It was at this critical point in my search for truth and tofu that I re-read Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and contemplated this quote: "The study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself. Working on a motorcycle, working well, caring, is to become part of a process, to achieve an inner peace of mind. The motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon."

The message seemed to recommend focusing in on a process, and thus I chose tofu.

Soy Story

FIRST, SOME TOFU RESEARCH. I learned from The Food Lover's Companion that tofu is also known as soybean or bean curd, and is "made from curdled soy milk, an iron-rich liquid extracted from ground, cooked soybeans." Just as with the process of making cheese, the curds are drained and pressed. Tofu's firmness depends on how much of the soy milk's whey has been removed.

The Internet also revealed a wealth of information, from recipes for tofu cheesecake to the U.S. Soyfoods directory (where can I find soyfoods in Indiana?) to an introduction to a tofu-grubbing Afghan hound in Japan named Sasha.

My quest for further, hands-on knowledge needed to be tastefully fueled, so I ventured first to that famous sanctuary for vegans: Dharma's Restaurant in Capitola. I sampled a tofu dessert that definitely ranks up there with Twinkies (sans the guilty aftertaste of evil white sugar and beef tallow).

An enthusiastic and helpful Dharma employee expounded on the virtues of tofu. "You can use it for anything," she gushed. "It takes on the taste of whatever it's with. It doesn't taste like anything on its own. Which is great because you can make it taste like anything you want."

A very Zen definition, I thought.

Next, a stop at the New Leaf deli section. I debated between tofu manicotti, vegan enchilada and tofu scallion spread. The deli clerk reported that the tofu scallion spread is "very popular." (Clearly, my friends Kelly and Jane had yet to inform him of their views on the evils of tofu spread.)

Inspired, I decided to see if I could whip up my own tofu classics like the restaurants and delis. I quickly discovered that tofu is ubiquitous. It can be baked or fried, blenderized or scrambled, marinated or grilled. It can be mixed with veggies, smothered in sauces, even come straight from the freezer in the form of Tofutti ice cream.

"There's definitely an interest in soy products now," says Aptos Natural Foods employee Lise Gilchrist. "Women in Japan don't experience menopause problems like we do, and their diets are much higher in soy. Many of my clients come to me because they've read research about the benefits of soy."

Several tofu fans believe that the ability to substitute tofu for meat is also a factor in their fondness for the white stuff. "I wanted to get away from meat," says Jacqui Bowe, a Santa Cruz-based self-described "universal comedian." "I had read about John Robbins [the author who espouses the virtues of healthy eating in his book, Diet for a New America]. Tofu is very good for menopause and women 'coming into their maturity.' I buy it and spice it all up."

Another friend of mine, Sharon, a local nurse, occasionally eats tofu. "I'm a product of Berkeley in the '60s, and I got away from eating meat," she says. "I rotate it now with other foods, and I usually marinate it in something. I think the more fit you get, the more sensitive your body gets. If you eat a lot of some food, your body doesn't agree with it. I try not to be a fanatic about any food."

Very Zen.

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From the July 2-8, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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