I’ve been proselytising my friends about my new tofu press. I get one of two responses when I tell them that my tofu press is the best thing ever. Either they ask why one needs to press tofu at all, or they ask why I don’t just use a pile of books to do it. (I admit that I might have more than usually nerdy friends –  not only do they spend their time pressing tofu but they have all lit upon the piles of books that surround them as the best means to do the job.) The thing is this: pressing tofu gives you a whole new insight into the delicious potential of this much-maligned food and pressing it evenly and thoroughly without the faff of trying not to soak your history of art books is worth a few bucks, people!

I can’t remember what started me on the tofu press hunt, but when I started looking around for one I quickly discovered they don’t sell them in the UK. They just don’t. I’d be happy to be proved wrong but I spent a bunch of time clicking around and came to the conclusion that British people really haven’t come around to tofu completely and the market can’t be there. Mama Lemur, for instance, despite being an enthusiastic cook of all kinds of international cuisines, has never eaten tofu and reacted to discussion of it as if I’d suggested she eat mealworms. It obviously seemed really weird and outré to her. And as I discovered when shopping with Thrifty Gal, our local Asda hides the tofu in the vegetarian ready meals section, a part of the store I’d certainly never been in and one I’d wager most omnivores wouldn’t have explored. I don’t know why Brits don’t love tofu – maybe the association with punitive health foods has stuck? Maybe the British tofu council needs to run some ads pointing out that you can deep fry it? In any case, thank the goddess for the internet.

I chose the EZ tofu press for several reasons: 1) it was available internationally on eBay, 2) it was substantially cheaper than the other major brand, and, importantly, 3) it actually looked like it would work better. The other big brand, TofuXpress, only takes ‘standard’ size tofu bricks. I’m a bit leery of this structure because I don’t think tofu comes in identically-sized bricks. Vaguely similar, yes, but I’ve seen quite different shapes depending on where my tofu originates. The EZ press is simpler but correspondingly less likely to break, easier to clean, and more flexible. So, I ordered it on eBay and while I was at it, tweeted the seller. He was super nice and the press arrived quickly and without fuss. (I should say at this point I am not in the employ of the good folks at EZ Tofu Press and I paid for my press. I just really like their product.)

So, what does a tofu press do that’s so great? To test it out, I turned to Andrea Nguyen, the doyenne of Vietnamese food who has just published a book on tofu. She recently wrote a feature on Chinese fermented black beans in the L.A. Times, accompanied by a series of recipes. One of those was for vegetarian Hunan style tofu and the recipe looked just the ticket to test run the EZ press. I invited vegetarian tofu skeptic Thrifty Gal to be my lab rat, er, join the experiment. The press was pretty easy to use. Sliding the tofu in is a little footery but once it’s in there, you just tighten the screws and set it on its side in a deep dish. Every now and again, tighten the screws till, in a half hour or so, your tofu is down to an inch or so in thickness and the dish is full of water.

Once pressed, I sliced the tofu block in half lengthways and then cut into matchboxes. At this point, it fried so easily I cannot tell you. No falling apart, no sticking to the pan, just golden, picture perfect tofu chunks.

After that, it went into the pan with Andrea’s fantastic fermented black bean stock and shiitake mushrooms and sucked up the delicious, umami flavours of the broth. Seriously, if you’re a vegetarian and even if you aren’t, you need to make this dish. Fermented black bean stock and pressed tofu are a marriage made in heaven, and even Thrifty Gal was swooning. I’ve never tasted tofu this good and I am an avowed tofu fan. Yes, there is still a big place in my life for the custardy texture of unpressed tofu (in mapo tofu, scrambled breakfast tofu etc) but my tofu press is opening up possibilities for stir fried tofu at a much, much higher level. In the pantheon of useful kitchen gadgets, my new tofu press is going into the mandoline section: not for everyday use but for certain dishes, utterly transformative.