Thursday, June 30, 2005

Alice in Tofuland - tofu shop international

I'd always had a belief that bad food can be made to taste good by adding more fat. Deep-fry a less-than-fresh piece of fish slapped in thick batter, and most people would happily munch away at it. Put enough butter and cream into your mashed potatoes and you¡¯d be called a master chef. But by no means am I suggesting that fats are nothing but evil ¨C quite the contrary. The famous Shanghainese "lion's head" meatball would be horribly tough and dry if only lean pork was used. It needs the moisture and lubricating qualities of evenly dispersed fat in the mince.

Or so I thought. My argument was quickly rebutted with a comment that the best ¡®lion¡¯s head¡¯ with the same (or even better) texture and flavour is made by mixing lean pork with tofu.

Most people are well-acquainted with these bricks of soybean derivatives, be they silky white or golden-skinned and earthily dense. They are now an essential part of vegetarian cuisine, of the east, west, and beyond, and culinary creativity with the humble ingredient has yet to see its limits. Some people swear by it, others loathe it, and I personally think that those in the latter category should be sent into mandatory tastebud training. If there was a qualified centre for this, it would undoubtedly be the Tofu Shop International on Bridge Road.

Here, soybeans are used for almost everything, from sweet slices to felafels, and even ¡®soyvlakis¡¯ (instant points for linguistic creativity). The soy felafel is brilliantly flavoursome and the addition of walnuts makes it all the more exciting as you crunch through the generous heap of salad inside the pita bread lined with all their sauces and condiments (tofu dip, peanut satay sauce, yogurt, chilli, Japanese pickled ginger). It looks deceptively tame as you sit at the stools in front of the glass counter watching the amiable staff assemble it before you, but it transforms into a bit of a roller-coaster ride in your mouth, with the vegetables and the nuts trying to outdo each other on the vertical crunch scale and the sauces and felafel making your tongue spin laterally, adding up to create a breathtaking ride.

The main offering at this cozy shop is, however, the array of dishes that one can pick and choose from to construct hearty lunches in bowls of three sizes ¨C small, medium and large. All are vegetarian and you can pick as many different dishes as you like ¨C staff will adjust proportions accordingly or as you request. We chose a medium bowl and tried four dishes. The curried parsnip with tofu was pleasantly spiced, and went well with the natural sweetness brought out of the parsnip. The coconut sauce penetrated well into the layers of the halved Brussels sprouts, and was an interesting and successful combination with the chunks sweet potato and cauliflower florets. The broccoli with vinegared lettuce and sliced mushrooms was superbly done, with all flavours and textures working in perfect harmony.

Everything was cooked to perfection ¨C the broccoli soft enough to be easily bitten into yet retaining its fresh green colour, the parsnip preserving a hint of tangy heat, the sweet potato, cauliflower and brussels sprouts all just right, despite differing requirements in cooking times, and the pumpkin roasted so tenderly that I forgot about removing the skin.

The bowls are offered with a small amount of rice, which does a good job of absorbing the lovely juices and sauces.

Sweet things forever catch my eye, and here, in the glass cabinet, they may be in the form of an innovative Chinese red date and coconut slice, or an impossibly stone-fruity peach and tofu slice. The tofu gives it a surprisingly smooth and creamy quality, but cleverly stays away from the overwhelming density that slices tend towards.

No matter where you sit, you will undoubtedly see some interesting merchandise for sale ¨C I saw a hangover cure behind the counter, as well as a good range of teas (including chai) on the shelves that line the walls on one side of the shop.

We've stuffed our faces with great food, yet we leave feeling refreshed and satisfied, detoxified, almost.

Big brand theme parks can be fun sometimes, but your trusty, local, down-to-earth amusements are often more delightful (on your hip pocket too).

Tofu Shop International
78 Bridge Rd
Melbourne, Australia
+613 9429 6204