Few ingredients can match tofu's versatility. It can be blended into smoothies, baked into desserts, tossed into soups and stir-fries, or stand on its own as the centerpiece of an entrée. Preparing tofu well, however, requires skill and knowledge. Done right, tofu can be a delicious part of any meal. Done poorly, you'll understand why some people swear off bean curd forever.
If you have never tried tofu, or you've had a bad tofu experience, I urge you not to give up. Start here, with five of Madison's tried-and-true tofu favorites.
Three Cup Tofu, Natt Spil
One might not expect to find the city's most tantalizing tofu dish at a restaurant with a Norwegian name, but Natt Spil's menu has a strong Asian influence, and its three cup tofu is tops. Bite-size cubes of tofu are served in a tamari, sesame oil and rice-wine glaze, further enhanced with bits of ginger and garlic and a delicate basil chiffonade. The tofu is served with a sizeable mound of white rice and a side of pickled tomato and cucumber salad - nicely acidic and slightly spicy. Service can be hit or miss at Natt Spil, which keeps me from visiting more often, as do the backless wooden stools. Expect large, noisy crowds on Friday and Saturday nights. If you prefer a quieter dining experience, Sunday evenings are a safer bet.
Tofu Secuwa, Dobhan
Dobhan is a sister restaurant to Chautara on State Street, offering primarily Nepalese and Indian cuisine. It's a beautiful space, with an open, airy dining room painted in inviting shades of blue, green and gold. I wasn't a lover of tofu until I tried its tofu secuwa - grilled skewers of marinated firm tofu, accented with juicy green pepper and crisp onion. Grilling gives the tofu a delightfully charred exterior and locks the flavor inside. Our server described the accompanying dipping sauce as "soy and onion based," and it's delicious - salty and pungent. Tofu secuwa comes with brown rice, sautéed seasoned vegetables and your choice of salad or dal, a hearty lentil soup. Get the dal. Dobhan's is divine.
Tofu Scramble, Mickey's Tavern
When poorly prepared, tofu scramble can be a bland, mushy mess. Not so at Mickey's Tavern, which elevates the tofu scramble to lofty heights. Available only at brunch on Saturdays and Sundays, Mickey's scramble features soy- and peanut-marinated tofu, sautéed with fresh spinach and red bell pepper until the tofu is slightly browned but not dry. It's an Asian-inspired delight. With oven-roasted potatoes and toast on the side, you won't leave hungry. The over-the-top kitschy décor, friendly service and great food make Mickey's a popular destination. You may have to wait for a table, but that's half the fun. Wiggle your way to the bar and order a Bloody Mary. They are, in my opinion, the best in town.
Mango Rundown Tofu, Jamerica
Of Jamerica's three tofu dishes, the Mango Rundown tofu is my favorite. Chunks of fried tofu are cooked with broccoli, carrots and cabbage in a sweet, creamy sauce of mango puree and coconut milk. The tofu is crispy on the outside, tender inside. The vegetables still have a little crunch, and the entire mixture is served over a large bed of well-seasoned Jamaican red beans and rice. I tasted thyme and a hint of chili pepper, which are nice foils for the sweet mango and coconut. I find the dine-in atmosphere at Jamerica leaves something to be desired, but it's my go-to place for carry-out. The portions are incredibly generous. My husband and I each made two sizeable meals from one take-out serving of Mango Rundown tofu.
Asian Tofu Sandwich, Lakeside Street Coffee House
Lakeside Street Coffee House is a gem nestled in Madison's eclectic Bay Creek neighborhood and overlooking Monona Bay. To make its Asian tofu sandwich, Lakeside mixes mashed firm tofu with made-in-Madison Yumbutter Asian Jazz peanut butter and shredded vegetables. The result is similar to egg salad in texture. The cayenne and turmeric in the Asian Jazz really come through but don't overpower. I love the flavors, but think this sandwich could be jazzed up even more with some sliced tomato and perhaps a little red onion. Still, paired with tangy pomegranate lemonade, my sandwich made for a satisfying lunch. I'll definitely be back.