Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Don't be coy about soy

A friend sent me an article (in the Huffington Post, no less!) warning readers not to take too much soy, whether in its raw form like edamame, processed into tofu and tempeh or as soy milk. It goes on to present the darker side of soy as it contains isoflavanes which can disrupt the estrogen system. The article concludes by exhorting everyone to treat soy the same way you would sugar, alcohol and caffeine. I'm a lover of soy in any form, so is it any wonder that this article has raised my hackles?

In this part of the world, until maybe about 30 or 40 years ago, we grew up without many luxuries, one of them being meat. For many families, chicken was a luxury to be savored only on special occasions. To compensate for a lack of meat on the dining table, cooks came up with all kinds of innovative ways to prepare and serve tofu and tempeh. Even today, it's a nutritious source of protein that is readily available and affordable. And rather than a food item to be tolerated because many consider it bland, it's a versatile  medium that takes on the flavors of the sauces it's cooked in.

Tofu is available in so many forms. Soft, silken slabs can be eaten without having to be cooked, with just a drizzle of vegetable oil, fried shallots and garlic, spring onions and soy sauce. A slightly harder version can be diced and stir fried with meat, or stuffed with a fish paste and deep fried. Even harder varieties can be sautéed and braised, while tofu puffs are delicious in soups and curries. There are also deep fried sticks or sheets of soy, again delicious in soups, stews or stir fries.

While tofu features prominently in all kinds of Chinese dishes, it is the most notable in the cuisine of the Hakka people, a Chinese clan I'm most proud to be descended from. Much like the people themselves, Hakka cuisine is down to earth, hearty and robust. Hakka or "guest" people originated in central China and migrated further south centuries ago. To fit their migratory habits, the thrifty and hardworking Hakkas developed a cuisine known for its pragmatism and simplicity, featuring a lot of salting, preserving and pickling in order to keep the food portable. It's no wonder many tofu dishes are attributed to this frugal clan.

As a meat substitute and also simply because we love this soy protein, tofu dishes feature prominently in my family. When we eat out, we're more than likely to order something with tofu in it. My mother was a star when it came to turning out winning tofu dishes, from the famed Hakka yong tow foo to simple deep fried tofu served with a chill garlic sauce. She also concocted her own dish of diced tofu with black beans, preserved radish and minced meat, a family favorite to be enjoyed with plain congee. I have never eaten this anywhere else or seen it on any menu so I'm guessing she must have created it herself.

One of my comfort foods is my mother's salted vegetable soup, to which she added silken nuggets of tofu, and some tomatoes. Because we're Hakka and not known for our finesse like the Cantonese or Teochews, our soups at home are served in steaming hot bowls, a large one for each of us. At the end of the meal, we would lift the entire bowl up and slurp directly from it! My all-time favorite tofu dish of hers is a simple braised dish. First, she lightly deep fried pieces of soft tofu. She then braised these in a clay pot with a mixture of mince meat and diced mushrooms in a rich broth flavored with oyster sauce and fish sauce.

I don't use tofu as a meat substitute. I cook with tofu and eat tofu often, because I happen to really like it. It doesn't have a flavor per se, but is so versatile. I do think it's a healthy food and am aware of overdoing soy. So no, I'm not going to regard it like sugar or alcohol. Tsk, why do people have to go overboard and binge eat soy anyway?

If you're interested to read the Huffington Post article, here it is. But me, I'm not going to ever shy away from soy.

My son, B's first attempt at making his grandma's dish on his own

Grandma's diced tofu with preserved radish

200gm of preserved minced radish (choy poh)
200gm of salted and preserved black beans
200 gm of diced semi-hard tofu
200 gm of minced meat (pork or chicken)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 chilli, sliced
Vegetable oil for frying
Fish or soy sauce

Soak the minced radish in water for about 10 minutes.
Drain and stir fry the radish in the wok without any oil until vegetables are dry. Remove and set aside.
Add half a cup of oil to the wok and when heated, gently fry the diced tofu until slightly golden brown. Remove and drain. Remove the remaining oil from the wok.
Heat about 3 tabp. oil in wok, and add minced garlic and sliced chilli.
Add the black beans and fry for about 1 minute.
Add the minced meat and fry for another 3 minutes.
Add the preserved radish and tofu and continue frying, adding some water if necessary.
Season with soy or fish sauce to taste.

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