By now, we know that tofu can take on many different forms. It can be rich. It can be fiery. But what many overlook is that it also can be sweet. The key ingredient in tofu, soy milk, has an underlying nuttiness that is enhanced when an element of sweet is added. That is why, as we enter the middle of summer, on the look out for lighter desserts, we gravitated to the soy-based sweets at V.P. Tofu, Izakaya Bincho, and Phoenix Dessert.
For those who like to start off their day with a sugar buzz, there is V.P. Tofu's Hot Soybean Pudding with Ginger. V.P. makes an elemental type of tofu that brings with it a politely worded sign asking you to refrigerate and consume their products within three to four days. The soybean pudding, with its porcelain-like appearance yet plush texture, highlights their skill. Although they offer flavored soy pudding like black sesame, we opt for the plain with ginger. The ginger element is a hot golden syrup that does not penetrate the pudding, instead it breaks down, scenting the dish and creating a sweet yet zesty tofu soup.
At Izakaya Bincho, Chef Tomo Ueno works furiously in its tiny kitchen to put out the type of Japanese food that draft beer was made for. However, for his Homemade Ricotta Cheese Tofu he takes a pause. He described to us how he combines ricotta with soy milk, and it sets in the fridge after six hours with the help of a little gelatin. What really comes into play in this dish is the addition of sugar, plus a touch of soy sauce, which creates a balancing act that first reveals itself as a sweet, then nutty, and finally a whisper of savory. Depending on what else you order, Chef Tomo-san will suggest you wait until the end of the meal for him to send out this dish. Nevertheless, he always serves it with a tiny bowl of additional soy sauce, so you can play with each spoonful. Sugar one, salty two.
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For us night owls, we will admit that there have been times we have found ourselves at Phoenix Dessert simply because it is one of the few sweet shops open till 1:00 a.m. However, we always are glad the trip was made when we find a Fresh Mango & Soy Custard still in the fridge. There is no doubt here that with its toppings of coconut-tinged sweetened milk, sugary tapioca balls and funky fresh mango, this is a dessert. Underneath the barely solid soy custard seems understated, however, it does add crucial taste and texture counterpoints to an otherwise sticky dessert. When slurping this cold dish, you don't really have a sense that you are eating tofu. But when you do finally think about it, you are pleased with yourself that you are.
V.P. Tofu: 237 South Garfield Avenue, Monterey Park, (626) 572-9930, Izakaya Bincho: 112 International Boardwalk Redondo Beach, (310) 376-3889, Phoenix Dessert: 220 East Valley Boulevard, Alhambra, (626) 299-1918.