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Tofu: the yogurt of the 1980s?

By JEANNE LESEM, UPI Family Editor

It looks like broccoli with cheese sauce. It tastes like broccoli with cheese sauce. It is, in fact, broccoli with tofu mustard sauce.

David Mintz, who developed the recipe along with dozens of other western-style tofu products, understandably thinks tofu-based ethnic foods are the wave of the future. He's selling everything from the broccoli side dish to frozen tofu desserts through his New York delicatessen and catering service.

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A recent study by a New York-based market research and publishing company suggests Mintz is part of a national trend.

Tofu could become the yogurt of the 1980s, says John Perry, director of research forFIND-SVP. Perry thinks the potential market for tofu as a tasty, versatile food 'is at least as great as the current market for yogurt.

'It will probably take tofu five to 10 years to reach the current level of yogurt, even with appropriately promoted and branded products,' Perry says.

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Tofu is also known as bean curd. The soft variety resembles egg custard in texture. The firm type is more like cheese. Both are almost totally flavorless -- which makes them a prime extender for flavorful but more expensive food such as ground beef or highly seasoned dishes.

The FIND-SVP survey estimates current sales at about $50 million, and predicts they will increase 300 percent within the next five years.

Since 1975 the number of shops and soy dairies in North America has grown from 55, all run by orientals, to 159 today, 62 percent of them run by Caucasians.

Even without major advertising, the number of tofu makers has nearly tripled in the past five years, says FIND-SVP researcher Cassandra Marrone.

Tofu is one of the cheapest forms of complete protein available. That makes it attractive to people trying to save money on their food budgets in these hard economic times.

Other factors, according to the study, are the introduction of more ready-to-eat entrees and processed tofu products, wider use in schools, hospitals and other mass-feeding institutions and better manufacturing and packaging techniques that lengthen shelf life, widen distribution and preserve the products' taste and freshness.

Tofu today is in the same position yogurt was about 10 years ago, Ms. Marrone said by telephone. 'Yogurt was considered an ethnic food with a foreign taste to the average American. Now yogurt is considered a dessert, a diet lunch and it's still the fastest growing dairy product in the United States.'

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Ms. Marrone thinks William Shurtleff, author of 'The Book of Tofu,' 'is responsible for a great deal of interest in the soybean curd -- in producing and selling it.

'Many businesses started with a handful of young people looking for an alternate lifestyle,' she said.

She said a San Francisco-based company, Quong Hop, is making frozen entrees, including casserole dishes, in hopes of opening up the market.

'Tofu is so bland on its own it turns Americans off,' she said.

The FIND-SVP survey showed most people buy the product in supermarkets, generally in the produce department where oriental vegetables are also displayed.

'There's very little advertising,' Ms. Marrone said, but many companies provide recipe leaflets with the product.

'I've heard of people combining tofu with peanut butter during the peanut butter shortage (that resulted last year after bad weather sharply reduced the peanut crop).'

Mintz's Buffet Kosher Take Out Foods and Catering was featuring soft-serve peanut butter Tofutti, a frozen, non-dairy dessert, the day we dropped in for lunch. It tasted like top-quality ice milk and, at 95 calories per five-ounce serving, was no more fattening than an apple. Soymilk and soybean oil replace the usual egg and cream of ice creams.

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The owner-manager was also preparing to cater a wedding for 300 at which about 65 different tofu-based dishes will be served.

Mintz's tofu specialties also include egg roll in which the usual Chinese filling of pork or shrimp with vegetables is replaced by tofu and spinach; quiches dense with vegetables and made with egg whites only - to lower the calorie and cholesterol content; a ratatouille-like vegetable side dish; souffles; and traditional Jewish pastries such as rugelach.

Tofu is especially useful in kosher cookery. Since it is pareve, it can be used with either meat or dairy products, without violating kosher dietary law that forbids mixing those two types of food or even serving them at the same meal.

The delicatessen's one window was filled with pans of plump bran muffins made with whole wheat flour in a yeast batter. Instead of sugar they're sweetened with barley malt, molasses and honey and they taste as rich and moist as they look.

'I sold a half-dozen a day at the start,' Mintz said. 'Now I sell about 2,000 a week.

He said he's going to have to move by the end of the year -- the building is going to be razed. He said he may drop meat dishes entirely after the move and become strictly a vegetarian restaurant with tofu specialties.

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'We sort of combine traditional foods with the new wave of eating.'

He woos new customers by offering tastes of different products every day.

'What's that?' asked a woman, eyeing a plateful of beige-colored cubes on the counter.

It was gefilte fish -- fish balls traditional to Eastern European and American Jewish cooking. No tofu in them, Mintz said.

'Listen, if you can make ice cream out of tofu, why not gefilte fish?' the woman said as she left.

Tofu does make a good extender for meat loaf.

The recipe following is from 'The Tofu Cookbook,' by Cathy Bauer and Juel Andersen (Rodale 1979):

1 lb. ground beef

One and two-thirds to 2 c. (1-1 ) lbs. tofu

1 medium onion, chopped fine

c. celery, chopped

c. parsley, chopped

Salt (optional)

2 eggs

c. wheat germ

c. soymilk, water, or wine

One-third c. sunflower seeds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine all ingredients except sunflower seeds in a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until smooth. Spoon the mixture, which will be quite moist, into a loaf pan and top with the sunflower seeds. Bake 1 to 1 hours and serve hot with a sauce. Save leftovers to slice cold for sandwiches. Makes 8-10 servings.

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adv for tues sept.

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