Oh tofu, how I love you. I find you intriguingly scrumptious in all your different forms, soft as custard or firm as cheese and every texture in between. It's true that you have very little flavor on your own, but I would never dare call you bland because I've tasted you at your full potential—in soups, curries, stir-frys and beyond. While some say you're a meat imposter, a vegetarian trickster, I give you more credit as food that stands alone. I eat meat, so I don't need you as a meat-poser. Instead, I regard you as a tasty sponge, eager to soak up the world around you but still retain your own distinct character. My beloved tofu, king of proteins, you are a malleable, magical yet maligned food and I'll defend you to the very end.
Delicate or hearty, spicy or sweet, here's where I think you shine.
While meals at Sushi Ota are all about the impeccably fresh fish, nothing gets my palate primed for the clean flavors of the seafood feast to come than an appetizer order of hiyayakko, a cold tofu dish whose deceptively simple preparation belies its crave-factor and appeal. Hiyayakko is cubes of fresh, soft chilled tofu with little garnish on top, some finely chopped scallions, freshly grated ginger, whisper-thin dried tuna flakes and a drizzle of soy sauce, which all add a bit of seasoning while not masking the subtle taste of the tofu. This refreshing dish is like a cool, moist towel for your tongue.
Another Japanese tofu snack worth eating here is agedashi tofu, lightly fried tofu served warm in a seaweed broth with grated daikon. 4529 Mission Bay Drive, Pacific Beach. 858-270-5047.
Conversely, China Max's tofu announces itself with a flavor and texture one-two punch. The crackly crusted shells of the fried bean curd batons give way to velvety smooth interiors. That texture contrast, combined with a savory jalapeño and garlic topping, results in one of the strongest food addictions I've ever experienced. The menu's tofu delights don't end there. Also excellent are the fluffy puffs of fried tofu, braised to tenderness in a clay pot along with squid, shrimp and other seafood, and the ma po tofu, a hearty combination of ground meat and tofu in a spicy bean sauce. I love the tasty chew of firm tofu when sautéed with dried shitake mushrooms and Chinese greens. 4698 Convoy St., Kearny Mesa.
I can't wait for sweater weather—the chilly temps necessitate much cozying up to Korean soon tofu, a stew of soft bean curd in a rich, spicy broth. I frequent Convoy Tofu House, where I most often order the version with dumplings, beef, mushrooms and zucchini but there are vegetarian and seafood renditions, too. The stew arrives steaming hot in a clay pot, accompanied by an assortment of goodies including pickles, marinated salads and a tin of steamed rice. My favorite part comes when the server cracks a raw egg into my still-roiling soup. Some eaters stir the egg into silky strands that enrich the stew, but I like to leave it to poach in the hot broth and fish out my soft-boiled egg later.
Soju, a liquor derived from sweet potatoes, is the drink of choice here, and this friendly place allows you to label your unfinished bottles and store them there for your next meal. 4229 Convoy St., Kearny Mesa.
The creamy lushness of silken tofu lends itself really well to desserts (e-mail me for a killer chocolate tofu pie recipe), but sweetest and simplest of all is dofu hwa, a Chinese dish that can be found amongst the dim-sum cart offerings at Emerald Seafood Restaurant. The dofu hwa rolls up to your table in a huge steamer, and the server uses a wide, shallow spoon to scoop snowy leaves of quivering, fresh baby bean curd that hasn't quite set to the tofu stage. It's ladled, piping hot, into bowls and topped with spicy-sweet ginger syrup for soothing proof that healthy and delicious are not mutually exclusive. This tofu is nourishing nursery-school food for all ages. 3709 Convoy St., Kearny Mesa.
858-565-6888.www.emeraldrestaurant.com. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.