How to make tofu, but beef eaters beware

A beef shank with Thai flavours.
A beef shank with Thai flavours. Photo: David Reist

In my defence it was always part of the plan this year to embrace the vegetable more completely. However, somewhere along the way I got off track and here we are, September, my inner voice says - and what have you done? - Besides speaking volumes on the quality of kale, I haven't exactly trawled the depths looking for alternatives to dead animals. To make up for my inadvertent lapse I'll try and share some love with my vegetarian brothers and sister. So this is for you, lap it up.

What would be the ultimate vegetarian dish – tofu - what product is so far from a meat that there would be no confusion – tell them it's tofu - something that you are going to make from scratch, ignoring any suggestion that it is a waste of time – c'mon, the suspense is killing them – so yes, I'm launching into the serious world of the tofu. Ignoring a fridge filled with all kinds of meat from this week's adventure at the regional markets: pork belly for ramen; a duck to roast and an amazing two kilo beef shank from the Gilmore Braes stall. No all of that is put on the back burner and tofu production has my full attention - maybe you could make a duck curry, no tofu, stay focused, there's a lot depending on this – but how on earth do you make tofu?

Sure even I know soybeans are involved but how do you make from little white beans a flavourless brick of milky brown, wobbly curd – I thought we discussed this, no disparaging comments about tofu – OK, so I'd better do some research, see you back here in half an hour.

I found the most amazing source of tofu information on my travels, a book called Tofu and Soy milk Production: A craft and technical manual by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi. There is only one hard copy in the country at the Kingscliff library on the Tweed coast. After ordering organic soy beans and nigari, this drive seemed a little over the top but luckily Google books allows for a quick read through the most detailed book I've read since finishing my science degree. Designed for those who are setting up a factory I presume.

To summarise the process you take soy beans, soak them in water until fully imbibed, drain and blend with freshwater, cook and then strain. This is soy milk, go wild, smells nasty, I praise whatever process it was that made me lactose tolerant, I'd hate to be confined to this in a latte. Now you add to this a setting agent, or coagulant, much like rennet to milk for cheese making. Here the traditional product is magnesium chloride or nigari. Don't worry it isn't something that Mr Fluffy might spray around just a byproduct of sea salt purification and also found in a seaweed. Nigari is available from online stores like City Organics. 

The setting agent is added and then, once coagulation occurs, you strain off the supernatant and in the cheese cloth you will find tofu. So that's what I did. In my trusty thermomix I was able to control temperature accurately to add the required nigari. Spent ages watching for the signs of coagulation and then very carefully strained the milk and pressed the tofu.

Mmm, well it's certainly tofu, taste and feels like the silken tofu you'd find in Coles ... now what? Oh sod this, I'm going to cook the beef shin instead (that's my boy, welcome back).  Sure, you can make tofu at home and if you had to, I presume it would be sustaining. But I'd be eating alone as my boys think I'm joking that this pad of grey matter, that I just spent 2 hours making, is food.

The folk at the Gilmore Braes heritage beef stand hand out recipes with their unusual cuts of meat, so here's a take on a red Thai curry. The beauty of this cut is that it stands rather splendidly to serve, a monument to my take on tofu making.

Thai curry of beef shank

1 whole beef shank, on the bone
1 tablespoon dry spice mixture (see below)
peanut oil
1 coconut cream 
6 kaffir lime leaves, torn
coriander stems
1 lemongrass, tough leaves and root bulb removed, chopped coarsely
4 tablespoon fish sauce
40g palm sugar, grated


Curry base (see below)

To serve

extra 6 kaffir lime leaves, shredded
1 bunch coriander, leaves
2-4 red chillies, sliced
extra fish sauce if needed

Rub the shank all over with spice mix, you can do this up to 24 hours beforehand. Heat the oil in a  wok or large frypan and fry the shank all over until nicely crisp. Place in a vessel that can fit enough  gravy to cover the shank, add coconut cream and everything else besides the curry base plus water  if needed. Bring to a low simmer and cook, covered, for 2-3 hours until the beef is very giving, turn a few times. Remove the meat, keep warm, strain and bring gravy to a boil, reduce by half and add  curry base, cook to a thick sauce, return the beef shank to coat and serve with rice and garnish.

Curry base

4 long dried red chillies, seeded and chopped
2 stalks lemongrass, tough leaves and root bulb removed, sliced finely
1 thumb size piece of galangal, peeled and chopped
4-6 coriander roots, cleaned and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
3-4 red shallots or eschalots, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoon dry spice mix (see below)
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon dried shrimp paste, dry roasted in foil
1 tablespoon peanut oil

Soak chillies in hot water until soft, heat a wok with oil and fry everything, except spice mix, shrimp  paste and salt, until soft and starting to caramelise, transfer to a blender and blitz with salt, shrimp paste and spices to a thick sauce. Use a little water if needed.

Dry spice

1 teaspoon coriander seed
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 star anise, crushed
1 teaspoon white peppercorns, ground
1 teaspoon turmeric powder

Heat a pan and dry roast coriander, cumin and anise until fragrant, grind to a powder and add other spices.