Silken tofu with crunchy toppings is a delightful study in contrasts
There's a glass-half-empty/glass-half-full way of looking at tofu. The former is that it's too bland to be interesting. The latter is that it's a versatile backdrop for powerful flavors.
Consider this: Have you ever heard somebody say they find fresh mozzarella too bland and boring for a Caprese salad? On the contrary, it's celebrated as the soothing counterpoint to acidic tomatoes, grassy olive oil, peppery basil. There are lots of other possibilities, too, including balsamic vinegar and crushed red pepper flakes.
I view this tofu recipe as the Japanese equivalent of the Caprese, with some obvious exceptions: It's built using a single block of silken tofu, which you may never have eaten in such a way, but trust me, you should. You top it with a riot of herbs, aromatics, scallions, peanuts and high-quality soy sauce, serve it cold, and let your guests spoon their portions out, eating it as an appetizer as is or perhaps with rice as a main course. The tofu is almost puddinglike, and its subtle nutty flavor and smooth, creamy texture play off the crunchy, salty toppings.
In some Asian cuisines, silken tofu is served not as a block but out of a shallow bowl or a pot, and it's sometimes made fresh. I remember the shock and delight the first time I ate it this way in Tokyo, where for breakfast at a traditional ryokan, a little iron pot sat over a flame, and the server poured freshly made soy milk into it. The pot already contained a coagulant — probably gypsum — and after a few minutes under cover, the lid was lifted, and I spooned into the most ethereal tofu I had ever eaten.
You can do that at home; Andrea Nguyen has a beautiful recipe for it in her book "Asian Tofu."
But on any given weeknight, especially in the summer when I want something that doesn't require any heat at all, I riff on a recipe from Harumi Kurihara's 2020 book, "Harumi's Japanese Kitchen." I start with store-bought silken tofu — I like to use the shelf-stable kind in aseptic packaging made by Mori-Nu — and then top it with what I have on hand. (This tofu has a slightly confusing label, in that it's labeled silken but also soft, firm or extra firm. Any of those will work for this recipe, but I prefer the soft, which is the creamiest.)
Kurihara calls it Gochiso-Dofu, or Decorated Tofu, which gives you an idea of how delicately she assembles the toppings. She wraps a paper towel around the edges of the tofu, letting it extend a few inches above the surface (sort of like how you make a paper collar for a souffle), and then after arranging the toppings, she removes the towel to expose a perfectly clean edge. Then she carefully pours the dark sauce along that edge, so it coats the sides of the tofu without disrupting the toppings.
All due respect, but I don't have time for that. Besides, I like how it looks to let some of the herbs, nuts and scallions tumble onto the serving dish, and to then flood it with the sauce, leaving the tofu's off-white flesh clean against the black. This dish is all about contrast — dark and light, crunchy and creamy, intense and mild — and don't you want to show that off?
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Gochiso-Dofu (Decorated Tofu)
15 minutes, plus any chilling time
2 to 4 servings
Creamy, neutral silken tofu meets pungent, crunchy, colorful toppings in this take on a traditional Japanese no-cook dish that's perfectly suited for warm weather. Consider the tofu a blank canvas, and feel free to substitute your favorite nuts, seeds and herbs for the ones listed here. If you have a garden, this is a great use for herb or other plant blossoms. This is a wonderful appetizer to serve four, but you could also serve it as a main course for two, with rice. Use tamari in place of soy sauce to make the dish gluten-free.
Storage Notes: The tofu is at its best, to taste and look at, when freshly made, but you can refrigerate it for up to 3 days.
Where to Buy: Mirin, Japanese sweet rice cooking wine, can be found in well-stocked supermarkets or Asian markets.
One (12-ounce) package silken tofu, drained
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint, basil, shiso or a mixture, plus small leaves for optional garnish
1 scallion, trimmed and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh ginger
2 tablespoons chopped roasted, unsalted peanuts
1 teaspoon white and/or black sesame seeds
Chive blossoms, for garnish (optional)
1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce or tamari
2 tablespoons mirin
Place the tofu on a serving plate. If it was in a shelf-stable package and at room temperature, chill for at least 1 hour and up to 8 hours before topping and serving.
Sprinkle the top of the tofu with the chopped herbs and scallion, then with the ginger, peanuts and sesame seeds. Garnish with the small whole herb leaves and chive blossoms, if using.
In a small measuring cup with a pourable spout, mix together the soy sauce or tamari and mirin. Pour the sauce around the tofu on the serving dish, and serve.
Adapted from "Harumi's Japanese Kitchen" by Harumi Kurihara (Octopus Conran, 2020).