Back of the House founder Adriano Paganini recently shuttered Belga, his popular four-year-old sausage and beer house on Union Street in Cow Hollow and opened Wildseed. Now one of the hottest restaurants in San Francisco, it’s packed every night with people chowing down on beet and orange pâté and ceviche of king trumpet mushrooms. While the “plant-based diet” is all the rage, it’s nothing new to the folks at Greens Restaurant. Founded by the San Francisco Zen Center in 1979 and located at Fort Mason Center, The New York Times credited Greens as “the restaurant that brought vegetarian food out from sprout-infested health food stores and established it as a cuisine in America.”
THE BIRTH OF TOFU
A plant-based diet is also not new in most ethnic cuisines, where vegetables, along with rice and legumes, have been staples for centuries. Soy is especially important to the Chinese, who first cultivated the soybean 3,000 years ago in Manchuria. During early domestication, soybeans were plowed into the soil as enrichment for other crops.
A thousand years later, descendants of those early farmers would begin to fully realize its nutritional value. Because whole soybeans are largely indigestible and of little nutritional value, generations following the Zhou Dynasty learned to process them. Soymilk was an early method, made by boiling and mashing the beans. That led to dou pi, the skin from the top of boiled milk (better known today by its Japanese name yuba). Salty black beans, soy sauce, sprouts, and oil followed. The king of them all — tofu — appeared in a mural on a stone slab from the excavated Han Dynasty (A.D. 25–220). Scholars believe salt was added to soymilk and when curds formed, tofu was born.
THE ART OF MEAT SUBSTITUTES
Around 2,000 years ago, two Buddhist missionaries named Kasyapa and Dharmaraksha arrived from India after journeying on the Silk Road. They believed in the virtue of a meatless diet, and their teachings were well received by Chinese peasants, who saw meat as a luxury. This led to the art of meat substitutes, where tofu and other plant-based ingredients mimic the taste and texture of animal protein often with amazing likeness. Meat substitutes are common in Chinese food until this day.
People either love tofu or they hate it. I happen to love it. Here are five of my favorite tofu dishes around the city that I believe can make a tofu lover out of anyone.
3641 Balboa Street (at 37th), 415-831-9288 (no website)
A common Shanghainese appetizer, vegetarian goose is usually served cold. At Shanghai House, a roulade made from layers of paper-thin tofu skin stuffed with mushrooms is served warm and drizzled with a sweet-and-sour sauce. The earthiness of the mushrooms mingled with the sweet yet vinegary sauce along with the tender bean curd enveloped in a warm, satisfyingly crunchy skin makes this my all-time favorite tofu dish.
Happy Family Tofu Special Trio (Puffed, Pressed, and Yuba) with Spicy Combo
644 Broadway Street (at Stockton), 415-788-8188, chinalivesf.com
Yes, the name is long, but the dish is also long on flavor (not a word usually associated with tofu). Airy and spongy puffed tofu, pressed curd, and yuba are tossed with bell peppers and cabbage in a spicy, salty black bean sauce (tip: ladle it over steamed white rice to tame the heat and salt).
Hot Pot with Tofu Skin and Vegetables
1360 Ninth Avenue (at Judah), 415-571-8100, sunsetshabu.com
Most hot pot spots are all-you-can-eat and offer just one broth per table, but Sunset Shabu has a shabu-shabu set for smaller appetites and up to two broths per cooktop. While there’s plenty of meat available, I go for the mixed veggies (which also includes soft tofu) and add a generous side of tofu skin. Dunk the stretchy, chewy yuba in a seaweed or miso-based broth along with enoki and king mushrooms, spinach, napa cabbage, and bok choy. (Bonus: They’re open until 10 p.m. nightly, and, at $28 it’s the best all-you-can-eat hot pot deal in town.)
Bean Curd Roll Stuffed with Taro Root
Lucky Creation Vegetarian Restaurant
854 Washington Street (at Ross Alley), 415-989-0818 (no website)
Of everything in the tofu universe, the skin is my favorite. At Lucky Creation, they take thin sheets of yuba, stuff them with taro root, and deep fry it crispy and golden brown. The delicate crunch of the skin and the creamy taro with its nutty yet floral flavor make for a perfect bite.
Tom Kha Pak Tofu Soup
2348 Polk Street (at Union), 415-346-1818, lemongrasssf.com
Lemongrass has been one of my two favorite Thai restaurants in San Francisco since they opened in 1994 (the other is Marnee Thai). Their delicious vegetarian take on the classic tom kha soup features an array of fresh garden vegetables alongside creamy chunks of tofu simmering in a broth of coconut milk, galangal, lemongrass, and lime juice.
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