Cheap Eats:
Vietnamese Steamed Tofu

"I will venture to say that if a prize were proposed for the scheme of a regimen most calculated to injure the stomach, the teeth, and the health in general, no better could be invented than that of the Americans."

Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney
(historian and philosopher, 1757-1820)

Yeah, so what else is new? Of course, if you know me, you know where I stand on this issue. My idea of health-care reform would be to give everybody a copy of Jean Carper’s "Food — Your Miracle Medicine." Based on more than 10,000 scientific studies, this book offers prevention and even cures for more than 100 symptoms and problems. It also offers some surprises (e.g., avocados are your friend, corn oil is not, and tomatoes can save your life).

Don’t worry — I’m not advocating an entire departure from life as we know it. My Anglo-Saxon blood cries out against the thought of never eating meat again, and a good piece of chocolate is a joy forever. However, there are lots of yummy things you can add to your diet, and lots of easy substitutes, which could give you a longer and healthier life, should long life and good health be among the things you desire.

Of the "miracle" foods listed in Carper’s book (and written up in medical journals with increasing frequency), few are as beneficial as soybeans. Soybeans are powerhouses of pharmacological activity. As Carper reports, soy "has anticancer activity and is thought to be especially antagonistic to breast cancer, possibly one reason rates of breast and prostate cancer are low among the Japanese. Soybeans are the richest source of potent protease inhibitors which are anticancer, antiviral agents. In many human tests, soybeans lower blood cholesterol substantially. In animals, soybeans seem to deter and help dissolve kidney stones." Soybeans can also smooth the way through menopause, and tests in Philadelphia showed soy protein might even dissolve gall stones.

You can enjoy toasted soybeans, tofu, soy milk, miso soup, and a plethora of new soy-based products, from soy ice "cream" to tofu hotdogs. (Sorry, soy sauce doesn’t qualify.)

Soy milk in vanilla or carob is a yummy treat. Even plain, it has a nice, almost nutty taste that blends well with whole-grain cereals, and I love it in iced coffee. (Most Asians are lactose intolerant, so soy milk is what you’d get most commonly in Asia, so the taste of iced coffee with soy milk brings back wonderful memories for me. In Hong Kong, soy milk was as common as soda pop.)

Tofu has little flavor, but is a great "carrier." I put silken tofu in the blender with herbs and balsamic vinegar to make dip. I mash firm tofu with a fork, add garlic, salt, pepper, basil, oregano and use it in place of ricotta cheese in lasagna. The extra firm, cut in cubes, holds up well in a stir fry.

Since my life is kind of a whirlwind, I appreciate the fact that tofu doesn’t go "off" quickly, like meat or chicken. A package of fresh tofu will last a week, and tofu in those little air-tight packages can sit on a shelf for months, to be opened whenever I need to whip up a quick meal. Tofu is now available at most grocery stores, so you probably won’t have to make a special trip, though you may find that it’s cheaper at an Asian market.

This dish is from Vietnam. It’s incredibly easy, and really yummy. You can make a balanced and relatively authentic meal by serving it with rice and steamed veggies, but I usually just have it with Triscuits or a slice of whole grain bread, or, if I’m having it for breakfast, just eat it alone.

Vietnamese Steamed Tofu

1 lb. firm tofu

2 Tbs. soy sauce/tamari (see Note below)

12-14 scallions

¼ tsp. crushed red pepper

a couple of grinds of black pepper

Drain tofu and cut into small (approx. ½ inch) cubes. Pour the soy sauce over the tofu; toss to coat. Slice the scallions (green onions). Add scallions and red and black peppers to tofu and mix to combine.

At this point the dish is supposed to be placed in one of those lovely, Asian steamers to steam for 25 minutes. If you have one, go for it. I don’t have a steamer (tiny kitchen = limited gadgets). I put a couple of inches of water in a large (3½ quart) saucepan, then I put the tofu in an oven-proof, Pyrex bowl, and put that in the saucepan (water s/b about ⅓ of the way up the bowl’s outside), then I bring the water to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, and cover to steam for 25 minutes. It works beautifully.

Serves 2‑4, depending on what’s served with it.


All soy sauces are not created equal. Some American brands are little more than caramel coloring and salt, or have "hydrolyzed soy protein," which means they’ve added MSG. Kikkoman makes one of the few indigenous brewed soy sauces, and is worth the slightly higher price. But if you want a real treat, try tamari. Tamari is the cognac of soy sauces. It uses more beans and is brewed longer, so it has a richer flavor, and the flavor isn’t lost when you cook with it. (Tamari is not a brand, it’s a category of soy sauce.) Its excellent flavor is making it popular, so even my local Jewel has it.

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