Have You Met… Tofu

Eat Well Have You Met...

This post is part of a series meant to spotlight ingredients, providing nutritional background, a little culinary inspiration, and perhaps encourage you to take an adventure into new markets and cuisines.

Have you met… tofu?

Tofu receives an unfair share of bad press — from the dismal beliefs that it’s bland and rubbery, to the damning fears that soy foods are detrimental to health.

Fortunately, these claims are mostly misguided. Tofu is a true chameleon ingredient, and a little creativity goes a long way + the current body of research indicates that the average amount of soy foods, including tofu, consumed in a typical Western diet is entirely safe, even health-promoting, for the majority of people.

In this edition of HYM I will present you with more of these facts, and help set the record straight!

What is it?

Originating in China over 2,000 years ago, with some records suggesting its first appearance c. AD 965, tofu has been a dietary staple of Chinese, Japanese and other southeast Asian cultures. Often thought of as a meat alternative for vegetarians, vegans and omnivores alike, this is actually not the case in Asia, where it is quite often served alongside or incorporated into meat dishes.

Also known as bean curd, tofu is a product of soy(bean)milk. The milk is heated and inoculated with natural acids, enzymes or salts promote coagulation, forming curds. Much like cheesemaking, the curds are separated from the liquid, then pressed and cut into blocks. The duration of pressing the soybean curd is what determines the ultimate consistency.

What’s so great about it?

For less than 100 calories and no cholesterol per 3-ounce serving, tofu is rich in antioxidant selenium and the trace mineral manganese, and is a good source of iron, magnesium, and immune-boosting zinc, plus mono- and poly-unsaturated fats for heart and brain health. Tofu is an excellent source of calcium, and becomes even more so when manufactured with a natural calcium compound. It is also a source of the B-vitamin folate and choline — two nutrients that offer some protection from development of birth defects of in a developing fetus.

This plant-based protein ranges from roughly 6 to 10 grams per serving, depending on the method of processing and style, and is considered a complete protein, meaning it contains the full complement of essential amino acids. Tofu is naturally gluten-free, but if you are following a low FODMAP (“fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols”) eating plan, note that silken tofu is considered high FODMAP, while firm tofu is considered low FODMAP.

New research also links regular intake of soy foods, including tofu, to significantly improved insulin resistance and blood pressure, increased antioxidant activity, and lower levels of triglyceride and cholesterol. Soybeans and soy foods, including tofu, are the most concentrated sources of isoflavones currently known in the human diet. Isoflavones are bio-active chemicals called phytoestrogens — plant-based compounds that very weakly mimic the effects of estrogen in the body.

Based on current research, moderate consumption of whole, unprocessed soy foods — tofu, tempeh, edamame, miso, soy nuts, soy sauce — is considered safe* for menopausal and postmenopausal women (reduces symptoms), and individuals with cancer (may even help prevent breast and prostate cancers). Soy is also associated in some instances with increased fertility, and may protect against oxidative damage in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Additionally, recent studies suggests that moderate intake should have no significant effect on sperm count, sperm motility, or male reproductive hormone levels, including testosterone.

Two groups that should exercise some caution with tofu and other whole soy foods, are those with thyroid issues and history of breast cancer. Consuming smaller amounts on occasion should be fine, and the impressive anti-cancer and other health benefits of soy foods likely outweigh potential concerns. However, it is, and will always be, my professional advice to talk first with your physician about recommendations based on your personal medical history and treatment plan. And when conducting your own research, always check the sources!

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Som Tam: A Tiny Kitchen Adventure

Eat Well Edibles Recipe

Som tam is the intensely flavorful green papaya salad made-to-order at street-side stalls in northeastern Thailand. Closer to home, you can find it on the menu at most Thai eateries, and occasionally at those specializing in Vietnamese or Laotian/Hmong foods.

My first taste of som tam was five or so years ago at a market in St. Paul, Minnesota, the sleepy sister city of Minneapolis. (Not as curious a place to encounter an authentic version when you learn that the Twin Cities are home to one of the largest populations of southeast Asian immigrants and refugees in the country.) My salad was prepared to-order in the traditional very large clay mortar with a wooden pestle practically the size of a baseball bat used to bash and mash shreds of unripe green papaya with snake (green) beans, chunks of tomato, peanuts, garlic, fish sauce, lime juice, tamarind, fresh chilli peppers, and the occasional sprinkling of tiny dried shrimp.

When the young woman stopped her mashing to ask my preferred level of heat, I responded something along the lines of “make me sweat a little.” Her look insinuated this might be a mistake, but I nodded to confirm my decision — one that seemed less wise as a mess of chillies went tumbling into the mortar. No going back now. We finished our conversation about her returning home to Vietnam over the summer, and she handed me the salad in a large styrofoam cup.

The initial bite was fierce in the best possible way. She certainly dialed it up with those chillies, but it wasn’t so overwhelming that I couldn’t enjoy the contrasting flavors and textures. It’s an impressive feat, and her som tam was enough for me to wish for a mountain of frequent flier miles and an unexpired passport. It immediately became one of my “must-order foods”: if it’s on the menu, I’m ordering it. Purely for research and comparison purposes, of course.

As someone who loves to experiment in the kitchen, and will likely never make it to southeast Asia for a truly authentic version of som tam, I was more than eager to try my own hand at home.

Green Papaya Shreds

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