By Joseph Lapenta
I am really tired of all the news about food. I am tired of the well-meaning nutritionists and talk-show hosts telling me a high-fat diet is bad for me. I know that already.
We are told that the Japanese are losing their food culture, and that more and more they are getting hooked on a diet of hamburgers and fried chicken. More fat and cholesterol in food is the cause of increasing obesity and higher rates of cancer and heart disease.
Mothers who feed such lethal food to their children should be treated like drunk drivers. They are a menace to society. But maybe their love of junk food is just a symptom. Maybe they are bored with the traditional Japanese food that is considered healthy because it is always the same.
Take summer food, for example. Once the weather finally heated up, I started to look for cool, tasty, healthy things to eat. There was sushi and sashimi; there's not much that you can do with them. And some recent innovations in cold noodles have attracted a lot of well-deserved attention. I tried them with a wide range of sauces or loaded with all sorts of tasty vegetables.
Then, of course, there was tofu - always served with bonito shavings, ground ginger, chopped green onions and soy sauce. It is nutritionally balanced, aesthetically pleasing, and after 30 years, very boring.
This summer, I realized that I was bored with tofu - at least, as it is usually served in Japan.
Why should tofu be boring? It is one of the world's best foods. The cheapest source of protein, it has almost no fat or calories. Yet the Japanese seem to have made a fetish of serving it cold in one way and only one way, at least in summer.
I, too, used to be conservative about food. I grew up in a traditional Italian-American home where pasta sauce always meant tomato sauce. My motto was: "If it isn't broken, don't fix it." But tofu seemed ripe for a taste revolution. I don't mean adding it to milkshakes or making it into "tofu burgers." I mean something really radical.
Luckily, I discovered a new approach to tofu and other Japanese ingredients in a cookbook called "The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen" by Eric Gower (Kodansha International). The writer lived in Japan for 15 years, but always in out-of-the-way places without good access to restaurants. With no professional training as a cook, he began experimenting with local ingredients and trying things most Japanese wouldn't think of doing. His book has transformed my view of tofu. I used to think of it as a soft, inert, white blob. Now it is a gourmet treat.
Many of his tofu dishes are created almost instantly in a blender, like the tofu and smoked salmon mousse with ground walnuts and orange zest. Spread on toasted bread, and accompanied by a chilled white wine, it provided many quick, cool, delicious lunches this summer.
Or how about a sauce of figs, pickled ginger (gari) and a little olive oil, made in a blender, spooned over tofu and topped with chives. Can you imagine what it tastes like? Probably not. So try it. Get out of the food rut. Start experimenting. You'll never look at tofu again in quite the same way, I promise you.
Shukan ST: Sept. 12, 2003
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