November 18, 2010

Cookbooks That Changed My Life: Tofu Cookery

by IsaChandra

In these times, where blogs come with bookdeals, it seems like de rigueur to act like you invented vegan mac and cheese. But let’s give credit where credit is due! I certainly learned from the cookbooks that came before mine. For the next few weeks I’ll be writing about the cookbooks that changed my life. This is part 1 of 5.

Tofu Cookery

When my sis and I went vegetarian in 1989, I wasn’t a very adventurous eater. But weeks and weeks of cheeseless pizza and frozen veggie burgers began to take its toll. I was ready to branch out!

I suppose fearlessness is just a bi-product of youth; the same way I never thought twice about wandering around in an abandoned building or cliff diving, I never looked at how long a recipe took, how many ingredients were needed or how many dishes were required. That was the spirit in which I dove into Louise Hagler’s Tofu Cookery, with total abandonment. Which is kind of funny because even with all that chutzpah, tofu scared the hell out of me.

But what I love about that time, too, is that it wasn’t assumed that tofu was somehow reprehensible. American titles like “That was TOFU? You Bastard!” and “I Can’t Believe You Served Me Tofu” had not been invented yet. Instead, the recipes in Tofu Cookery were written as if tofu were something delicious and wondrous and, most importantly, loved. Which is what it became for me, and which it had been in China and Japan for hundreds and years.

So this is where my love of cooking began. In 1989, in a small kitchen in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, with linoleum floors and florescent lighting. Alongside my mom and my sis and even my brother who hated vegetarians but would soon have to admit that he loved our cooking. My best friend would come over and we’d get out all the pots and pans, blast the music (mostly Chumbawamba way before the Home Alone debacle), crank up the burners and have at it. For almost any occasion. I can recall a gigantic Thanksgiving spread with ten different kinds of tofu for every course and strawberries way out of season. A Chinese-inspired Christmas buffet with spring rolls that needed 10 layers of brown paper shopping bags to absorb the oil. Everything wasn’t always a success, but most of it was, and even if we failed we had fun.

This marks the time in my life where the kitchen went from smelling vaguely of microwaved frozen dinners, to the heart of our home. You’d open the front door downstairs, leave the cold air and the sound of the Q-train overhead, and enter a downright enchanting bouquet; garlic, olive oil, cinnamon, all mingling and cozy.

Over 20 years later and many of the recipes still have an influence on my cooking, and some recipes are still in my repertoire. Here are some of the specifics.

Barbeque Tofu: This recipe taught me a really important method that I still use today. When you bake the tofu with a little oil and tamari before applying the sauce, it creates the most amazing meaty texture. Covering the pan with tin foil insures that it doesn’t dry out.

Tofu Balls & Spaghetti: I remember seeing peanut butter, tofu and breadcrumbs in the recipe list and not even blinking. Of course that would all taste good together! This is still a family favorite. My sis makes it for her children and I make it for my boyfriend. I’ve made a few embellishments over the years but they still taste like home to me.

Brownies: These were the first baked goods that I ever baked from scratch. They are also the things that made my brother STFU about vegan treats. They’re everything a brownie should be: rich, chocolatey and dense. And they use an interesting method of cooking a bunch of ingredients together on the stovetop to thicken before baking the brownies.

Sweet and Sour Tofu Balls: Before this recipe, I was pretty sure that sauce came from a magical sweet and sour tree. This recipe blew my mind! I learned how to batter and fry. I learned how to make sweet and sour sauce. Really what this recipe did for me was demystify cooking; I could actually make a dish that I thought could only come from a restaurant.

So that was the beginning. Tofu Cookery was revamped a few years ago, but I still have my battered old copy, complete with chocolate thumbprints from a 16 year old me.

Check out Tofu Cookery on Amazon.

  • November 18, 2010 at 10:57 pm: Abbie O.

    Isa, sometimes I feel like we are old friends.
    Thank you for sharing this; your books are to me what Tofu Cookery was to you (except I started exploring vegetarian and vegan cooking in the land of Oh-My-God-What-Is-That-And-Where-Is-My-Meat).
    Can’t wait for the next installment.

  • November 18, 2010 at 11:00 pm: amey

    oh Isa, what a sweet post. it’s amazing to go back and look at the early days of something like that… who knew where it would lead!?

  • November 18, 2010 at 11:06 pm: hamcat

    I loved this book. The tofu foo yung was my favorite recipe for a few years.

  • November 18, 2010 at 11:09 pm: Laura in Taos

    Wow – I bought this book in the 80s when I was living in Bay Ridge – what a long, strange, trip…

  • November 18, 2010 at 11:46 pm: Brendan

    This is a really great post. You’ve really captured the romance of those beloved old cookbooks. Also this sounds like a good one I’m totally going to buy. I’m looking forward to the next four installments!

  • November 18, 2010 at 11:54 pm: JL goes Vegan

    I love this post. As a blogger who so doesn’t want a book deal and knows she hasn’t invented a damn thing, I’m laughing so hard. I’m a recent vegetarian (eight years) and newbie vegan and tofu had me at hello years ago. What’s not to love? But I want that cookbook.

  • November 19, 2010 at 12:01 am: Holly

    This cookbook has a special place on our shelf. It is old and tired and the pages of favorite recipes are stiff with spills. Our family favorite is the Indonesian saute dish. I also learned, from this book, that a marinade of peanut butter and soy sauce made tofu something really special. Thanks for sharing this cookbook.

  • November 19, 2010 at 12:12 am: Melomeals: Vegan for $3.33 a Day

    I am sooo going to see if my library has this cookbook. I grew up with a vegetarian diet and pretty much memorized Diet For a Small Planet by the time I was 10.. it’s great to go back in time through cookbooks! I know the brownie method you are talking about, but had no idea where it originated..
    I can’t wait to see what other cookbooks you like.

    Ironically, one of the first vegan influences for me was the forum The Hillbilly Housewife… I was so intrigued by agar and nut cheese..
    I remember when I first stumbled upon your forum.. and got your cookbook.. I was so thrilled! You’ve been a huge inspiration to me and so many others!

  • November 19, 2010 at 1:02 am: sprouted chickpea

    yesssssss!!!! sooooooo good.

    isahhhhh i’m so happy yr blog is back xo

  • November 19, 2010 at 1:21 am: kittee

    the carrot cake in this book is uh mazing!!!!! i love louise hagler and thank her everyday for bringing nooch into my life.


  • November 19, 2010 at 1:25 am: Alana

    I grew up with my mom cooking recipes from this book – including the barbeque tofu, spaghetti balls and Chinese tofu balls! (The barbeque sauce from this book is still the one I use to this day.) Her copy contains my childish grafitti and 1980’s themed stickers that I would add while she was cooking dinner. Tofu Cookery was the first cookbook I brought to college with me and has a special place in my heart. Thanks for giving it the attention it deserves!

  • November 19, 2010 at 1:57 am: Dawn

    I am so glad you are doing a great blogs/cookbooks series. I always wondered who & what your inspirations were, and now we all get to find out. Thanks so much for sharing this (and I am so looking forward to reading the whole series!). I can see even more vegan cookbooks making their way to my amazon cart :-)

  • November 19, 2010 at 1:59 am: Angelique

    I agree! I don’t refer to it much anymore but I will never forget certain recipes from it like the Egg Foo Young (unbelievable) and the Blueberry Lemon bundt cake. I’ve always been repelled by cover pic but so many recipes in it truly rock. That publishing company has a BUNCH of great veg recipe books (I think they’re called Book Publishing Company).

  • November 19, 2010 at 2:17 am: Marlene

    I remember buying that book when you and your sister came home one day and announced that you were vegans. I guess you’re referring to the kitchen on Avenue V.

  • November 19, 2010 at 3:14 am: Lauren Marie

    I love this post! It’s adorbs!

  • November 19, 2010 at 3:16 am: Lisa Buenaventura Rice

    I LOVE this post, thank you for sharing! It took me back to my roach infested walk-up in the East Village circa 1986, cooking brown rice, beans and seaweeds from Aveline Kushi’s macrobiotic cookbook. Not nearly as fun as the food you were cooking up in Brooklyn. However, I was a rock chick listening to hair bands and you would’ve kicked my butt!

  • November 19, 2010 at 3:57 am: Meredith

    I love this post, I’m so glad you shared! Your books are definitely to me what this book was to you, thanks for making me LOVE cooking and for making the transition to veganism so easy!

  • November 19, 2010 at 4:27 am: William

    We all stand on the shoulders of giants. And as much as I love the advertising that Herbivore Clothing does, Isa you really put the F.U. in tofu!

  • November 19, 2010 at 10:52 am: Gina

    The sensibilities (and humor) that prompted this article are what make your books and blogs so popular. This one not only was very interesting and fun to read, but has reminded us about that important cookbook discovery on our respective vegan paths. Very nice to revisit that. You are a such a good writer. Merci mille fois (equivalent: thanks a million)!

  • November 19, 2010 at 12:48 pm: JohnP

    I love Louise Hagler, Tofu Cookery, and that BBQ tofu recipe! Louise’s book on miso is another old-timey favorite of mine. It had me putting miso in **everything**.

  • November 19, 2010 at 3:49 pm: Carrie

    Nice! I got this book years ago from and agree that it handles tofu as something that (gasp!) might actually be tasty. Also, it’s not all crunchy granola food–it’s tofu used in ways that are appealing to many palates. You’ve inspired me to go home and pull this book off my shelf again. Thank you!

  • November 19, 2010 at 10:40 pm: Susan Kelley

    Beautifully written, and now I want this book!

  • November 21, 2010 at 12:35 am: Stefanie

    This is the first cookbook my husband and I bought when we went vegan in 1991. We still use it especially for that brownie recipe which has chocolate smudges all over the page!

  • November 21, 2010 at 1:31 am: Robin

    OMG!! How cool! A friend of mine just found this cook book at the humane socitey thrift store and got it for me!!! I haven’t tired any of the recipes yet but I will be cooking them up soon!

  • November 22, 2010 at 11:01 pm: Louise Hagler

    Thank you for these sweet words about Tofu Cookery, Isa. Those were some pretty magical years experimenting together in community to come up with the original. I am so glad it worked for you (and many others). The book has been updated and expanded in the 25th Anniversary Edition of Tofu Cookery, which came off the press in 2008.

  • November 23, 2010 at 7:06 pm: andrea devon

    isa- like the first comment says, it was your work that inspired me in the same way. though i have been vegetarian for most of my life, i never really branched out until i found the post punk kitchen a few years ago. flaxseeds in baking!? pomegranate molasses, what? homemade seitan? oh yes, it was the ppk that paved my way, for miles of culinary adventures.

  • December 8, 2010 at 2:59 am: Danak

    Gah! Holy cow! This was my first tofu cookbook too! I recall a stuff shell recipe in there too? I had no idea how to cook or what to do with food that wasn’t from a can or box. Soy not Oi also was a staple in my first kitchen in college. Fry bread.

  • December 8, 2010 at 3:01 am: Danak

    Update! I followed Louise’s link and here are my beloved stuffed shells: thanks for reminding me about this awesome book!

  • December 12, 2010 at 11:36 pm: jr

    I’ve made the Tofu Pot Pie recipe in that cookbook a million times. Try it! Easy to veganize.

  • January 5, 2011 at 2:41 am: LauraT

    I went to my bookshelves after reading this and pulled out my old copy of this book. I LOVED this cookbook, it was my first tofu cookbook as well. Loved the Almond Tofu dish. As a bonus, I found oodles of newspaper clippings (other tofu recipes) my Mother added to this book – all dated 1987 :) What fun!

  • April 19, 2011 at 12:22 am: AshYTim

    I laughed when I saw the picture! This book was one of my first vegan cookbooks, along with VWAV. :) Thanks for sharing!

  • May 1, 2011 at 10:40 am: Angelique

    Loved this post — I have a battered copy also, one of my first veg cookbooks that I got almost 20 yrs ago. Though I rarely eat tofu these days (makes me too mucousy – TMI?), I still fondly remember the rockin’ egg foo young recipe (genius) and the blueberry lemon bundt cake, so moist. The pic on the cover always cracked me up. Those enchiladas look terrible to me (and I love enchiladas!) so it made it even funnier to me that the recipe book was actually packed with brilliant delicious recipes. Looking forward to seeing what other cookbooks you post about… I’m enjoying seeing what has inspired and taught the great Isa!

  • May 16, 2014 at 12:13 pm: Serviced Apartments Lady

    Now this is the book for me! I love the idea of tofu because it looks so simple to use but totally variable!