Bee Wilson rescues tofu's reputation for drabness

Tofu with everything - a deep-fried soybean snack is better than chips

Bean curd, or tofu, must be one of the most commonly reviled foods in Britain, often viewed with more disgust than frogs or snails. Not too long ago, the Observer Food Monthly nominated this protein-rich white curd as a "crime against food". Some people seem to hate its texture, its appearance and its taste, or lack of it.

Yet, as Alan Davidson writes, "tofu occupies a place in oriental cookery which corresponds to that of dairy products in other parts of the world". The transformation of soybeans into vegetarian quasi-cheese has been practised since at least the Middle Ages.

Among the South Koreans, that great footballing people, bean curd is not some quirky "ingredient" - like smoked paprika, say, or monkfish tails - but an indispensable category of food. In Japan, there are entire restaurants dedicated to tofu. In China, popular vendors are surrounded by eager customers ready to buy a healthy afternoon bowlful of soft, slippery bean curd, topped with peanuts and brown sugar, or almond essence and fruit or, in Chengdu, with chilli oil and Sichuan pepper.

I must admit that, until recently, I have always found bean curd to be pleasant enough, but nothing to rave about. This was before I discovered deep-fried tofu, one of the most moreish snacks imaginable, better than chips. Admittedly, if you are mainly interested in bean curd for its dour nutritional properties, then deep-frying may be missing the point. But for anyone who cares a little about pleasure, deep-frying is the point. Something magical happens when tofu hits hot oil in a wok. It puffs up, frills at the edges, crispens. The damp white squares suddenly go golden, but stay moist within, a bit like very delicious eggy bread, but somehow not greasy. After you've drained them, if you wait a little bit, until the burnished pieces are just cool enough to touch, then dip them in a little Kikkoman soy sauce, with some cucumber on the side, you have a truly perfect snack.

A good variant is a Japanese recipe where you dip cubes of tofu first in flour, then egg, then sesame seeds, before frying until toasty and serving with a sauce of mirin, rice vinegar and soy sauce.

One can't deny that deep-frying is a tiresome and even perilous job. But summer is the time of year to do it, because you can fling open all the windows. Another way to eliminate nasty lingering fat smells is to use good-quality groundnut oil instead of plain vegetable oil (a misnomer, as it has nothing to do with vegetables). Make sure you buy your bean curd fresh - from a Chinese supermarket, that is, rather than vacuum-packed and long-life. The fresh kind, which has a much better texture and a nice clean flavour, comes in a large chunk (usually 800g) soaked in water in the fridge. All you need do is slice it as you desire and drain well on kitchen paper, and it is ready to use.

Given the nuisance of heating up all that oil, it makes sense to fry quite a lot at a time; eat some of it warm as suggested, and save the rest for a different dish later in the week. Cold fried bean curd is the basis for all kinds of excellent things. You can braise it with Chinese mushrooms, shallots and rice wine. You can reheat it in a fresh light tomato sauce and sprinkle on coriander leaves to finish. Or - my favourite - you can cook it "home style", as the food writer Fuchsia Dunlop suggests in Sichuan Cookery, in an enlivening sauce of sizzling ginger and spring onion, chilli bean paste, stock and soy sauce. The only crime this tofu dish commits against food is to knock the socks off most of the snacks the British hold dear.

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