In Search of Tofu

By: Betsy Bearden

Have you ever had a craving for tofu?  Well—not to worry…most people haven’t. But for now, let’s just say that you might have a craving for it every now and then. Tofu is so readily available in just about any marketplace in the metro Atlanta area, yet it’s still not exactly a hot-commodity in most restaurants.

Imagine if you will, my husband, Steven, and I driving down Buford Highway, into the Chamblee/Doraville Asian District, in search of tofu—in separate cars—Smart Phones in hand.

“Tango Omega Foxtrot Unicorn, to Dark Side of the Moon … come on …”

“This is D-S-O-T-M … come back, T-O-F-U …”

“Spotted anything yet …?

“Not yet … Wait! There’s a Korean Restaurant with “tofu” in its name!”

“You game? Come back…”

“Let’s do it! Come on…”

Standing there upon the threshold of yet another new dining experience, we had no idea what to expect. All I knew is that the name of the restaurant held the promise of what could literally turn out to be tofu bliss!

Upon entering the restaurant and apparently acting totally clueless, the place went deathly silent. I suppose it was due to our being the only two Caucasian’s there? The servers told us to “sit anywhere” as they shot a certain “all-knowing” look at each other. One of them grabbed the menus and headed to our table with the look of “I’m goin’ in,” written all over her face.

The six-page menu was loaded with delectable items such as: Braised beef tips with tofu; Pork tenderloin smothered with kimchi, rubbed with medium spicy Doinjang-jjigae paste (made of soybeans); BBQ beef with soft tofu, (which was probably wrapped in bacon). We looked at each item and read the ingredients very carefully; 15 minutes later, we placed our menus on the table. Our server approached, and Steven explained to her that it was our first time visiting their establishment, and could she offer any suggestions as far as vegetarian items on the menu.

She started speaking quickly, with broken-stabbing English and said, “We do have a soup with spring onions, soft tofu and vegetables. You want that? You want soup?” When asked if we could have tofu prepared as a side dish, with rice and veggies, she went on to explain that the option was not available. They only served soft tofu, and it could not be deep-fried or sautéed as we had requested. Actually, she looked quite appalled at the notion and said, “No! It will fall apart! You want the soup?”

We decided the soup would be fine, but not quite enough to eat, and asked what else might be a good choice. There was rice on the menu. How about having rice with vegetables?  She told us the bowl of rice came with sides of vegetables. We could also have an egg in the rice. So we agreed each of us would have the soup, and two rice bowls with the side vegetables.

Well, let me tell you—I was not prepared for what we were about to receive. The soup came out first, bubbling in a hot bowl which made me immediately think of the vapor trail put off by dry ice packed around a witch’s cauldron at Halloween. I mean this was literally in the state of fusion. Bubbling-hot-liquid magma, in a black stone cauldron!

Next, six separate bowls were placed in front of us. Each held a different vegetable starting with: Kimchi, spicy cucumbers, steamed bean sprouts, sweet boiled potatoes, seaweed salad, and in one of them was something that didn’t look “real.” When asked, we were told it was whole fried anchovies. (Euuuwww.)

Our soup had cooled a bit, so we started placing the veggie items in it. Had we put them in sooner, they would have disintegrated for sure. I had never tried kimchi before; I won’t try it again. Other than that, the soup was delicious. The soft tofu and steamed veggies were perfect. Halfway into our soup, and feeling great about our accomplishment, two servers brought out the rest of the order. I suddenly got that same feeling I did a long time ago while watching “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” when the Mother-Ship finally appeared and the windows were blown out of the Central Control station…Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, DAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!

If I could have crawled under the table, I would have, but there were barbecue pits in the middle of each table, which barely left enough room to even slide up to the table and get your legs under it.

Placed before us were two of the largest bowls of steaming rice I had ever seen in my life! On top of the rice was a raw egg. The bowls were actually called stone crocks, and they were as big as your head!

We sat and stared at the steaming crocks (cauldrons!) of rice with the raw egg on top, not knowing what to do for what seemed an eternity, when out of nowhere our server appeared, speaking in that quick, stabbing English again, “You must stir rice…will cook egg. If you don’t stir rice, bowl is hot, will stick to bottom of bowl and burn! You stir rice!” And then she was gone.

I felt like I had just been spanked. We quickly stirred the rice and mixed in some more veggies. A Teflon-coated tongue and esophagus would have come in handy, but after a while, the rice stopped steaming enough to actually eat it. It was delicious. Not only was it delicious, it occurred to me how healthy the food was.  So, all-in-all—mission accomplished!

It’s not every day that we sit down at the table and dine on kimchi, seaweed salad, steamed bean sprouts and other surprises. I encourage you all to venture out of the “norm” and try something different. I gained a lot of respect for the Korean culture that afternoon, because they are not so different from us when it comes to eating healthy foods.

Betsy Bearden is a certified and published writer, and the author of a self-published cookbook, Normal People Eat Tofu, Too.  She has worked as a volunteer chef, and cooking class instructor at Kroger’s School of Cooking in Alpharetta, Georgia, and as a reporter for The Paulding Neighbor Newspaper. You can reach her at betsybearden@gmail.com or visit her website at www.creativewrites.net