Read: Irish Examiner | Fresh and delicious, West Cork’s Otofu is a game changer
First published in the Irish Examiner on 6 January 2023.
Even if you’re not jumping on the Veganuary bandwagon, January is a month when many people take stock of what they’re eating. A new year’s change of diet doesn’t have to be about giving up meat for you to mix things up in the kitchen and bring something new to the plate. For anyone wanting to try a locally-produced, protein-rich foodstuff, tofu might hit the mark.
While some people’s first encounter with tofu is not exactly positive – I first tasted it at a Japanese restaurant in Dublin about 20 years and didn’t repeat the experience for many years – West Cork company Otofu is aiming to change that.
Former fashion designer Méabh Mooney and her partner Ronan Forde embarked on their professional tofu-making journey in Kilbrittain when they came across an advert for a tofu maker on Done Deal during lockdown in 2020. Mooney had first encountered tofu while living in Australia: “I was always interested in plant-based eating and one day I asked my flatmate what he was eating. I started eating it regularly in salads and all kinds of ways – grated, cubed, or fried.” After realising that there was no Irish-produced tofu, Mooney and Forde started making it at home but that online advert was a game changer.
Forde had worked in the Irish artisan food industry for many years, including a stint at Toonsbridge Dairy, and knew that the process was very similar to cheesemaking. “You make soy milk first, soaking the beans and then grinding them,” explains Mooney. The soy milk is boiled and cooled before adding nigari – a byproduct of sea salt-making – which coagulates the liquid so that proteins gather together to form a solid curd. As with cheesemaking, the soybean curd is separated from the whey and pressed into blocks of tofu. Those large blocks are then cut into thick 300g slices and packaged for retail with a three-week chilled shelf life.
Otofu currently makes two marinaded versions – a punchy Korean Chilli Tofu and nutty-flavoured Miso Sesame Tofu – along with a plain original tofu which, Mooney explains, is the most popular. “You can cook everything with it. It’s our bestseller, especially with the tofu-curious who are willing to try the product when it’s local. The Korean chilli version came about because Ronan’s favourite food is Korean then miso sesame are two flavours that go well together.”
Tofu is “high in iron and low in saturated fat,” Mooney points out, “and contains nine amino acids making it a complete protein, similar to meat, fish and eggs.” It’s not as processed as many meat alternatives: some of the burger patty substitutes available now, for instance, have up to 17 ingredients.
While there’s increased interest in tofu from a vegetarian and vegan perspective, there are also many environmental questions about the growth of soy production. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, there has been a rapid increase in production since the early 1960s with the US and Brazil growing more than two-thirds (69%) of the world’s soy, much of which is used for animal feed. Some of this expansion has been linked to deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Otofu source their organic, non-GMO soy beans from their closest European grower. The Austrian-based company grows soy around the Danube region, where deforestation is not an issue.
While the increased interest in Irish-grown protein crops has had farmers trying to grow soy in this country, it hasn’t been successful on a commercial scale. “There have been some trials in the midlands,” says Mooney, “and I know someone else who is trying it in polytunnels but it’s not organic and it’s more for animal feed.”
For the tofu novice, Mooney has plenty of ideas on how to incorporate it into the diet. “We eat it several times a week,” she laughs. “It’s always in the fridge! Lots of people are interested in cooking with it. The quickest way is to pan-fry the block and have it as a little snack. Our tofu is freshly made every week so it has a creamy bouncy centre. Some people make it crispier by coating the outside with cornstarch [cornflour]. I like eating it in a salad with lots of crunchy vegetables and a dressing made from a mixture of tamari, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, maple syrup and ginger. Tofu is so versatile – use it in a dip or make burgers with it. I also scramble tofu to eat with breakfast or with fried rice, adding turmeric and nutritional yeast and tomato. Everyone can eat it – it’s not just for veggies or vegans. And,” she adds with the experience that comes from having two small children, “kids like tofu; they don’t even have to chew it!”
The couple and their children are currently in the process of moving to Ballylickey but their portable production unit will be coming too, which is good news for all those who are looking to add a nutritious, plant-based protein to mealtimes. After years of ignoring tofu, I’ve become an Otofu convert, slipping cubes of the plain version into miso soup, and frying up the marinaded versions in chunks to eat with rice or crumbled as a flavoursome addition to a noodle stirfry. Fresh and adaptable to any number of recipes, it’s a world away from my previous tofu experiences. “Most people want to eat less meat,” says Mooney, “and tofu offers a different option that can be as delicious and satisfying.” Otofu: bringing something new and locally produced to the table for 2023.
Details of stockists – mainly Cork-based but some nationwide – are available at www.otofu.ie, which also has a selection of recipes for the tofu-curious. Find more recipes on their Instagram account at @otofu.ie