I don't cook very often with tofu (perhaps once a month, if that), and the only soy I consume most days is a couple of tablespoons of soymilk in my tea or coffee. But for as long as I've been a vegan, I've listened to and tried to understand some of the criticisms fired at soy. Some of these include valid research and concerns from real people like you and me who want to make sure they are eating the right stuff when they move to a plant-based diet. But truth be told, a lot of the criticism comes from the meat and dairy industries and their minions looking to preserve their own business interests.
Then recently, I came across an unusually heated discussion over soy products on an Indian vegan forum. A large number of the people commenting seemed to be really nervous about soy and were vigorously exchanging links to articles pummeling it. Some swore how they had not touched soy in years, or would not hereafter. All of it really, truly mystified me.
Mystified me because, for one, the Indian diet has not been traditionally dependent on soy so I didn't really see why everyone sounded like they'd been eating a ton of it. Vegetarian Indians have long managed to balance their diets beautifully with grains and beans and lentils-- a gift, really, for modern-day vegans who don't have to look far to find delicious recipes, the way we here in the West with our long tradition of meat-based diets sometimes have to. But the other reason I was mystified was because this seemed to be a reaction based mostly on the gut rather than any sound understanding of the pros and cons of soy and the tremendous health benefits it offers.
With a vegan diet, perhaps more than any other, information is key, but the message can sometimes get lost in the din of voices weighing in from just about every side. You can find some very authoritative articles on plant-based diets that weigh in on the soy controversy, like this one.
Here's what I do to make sure I get all the goodness of soy in my diet while keeping any potential negative effects at bay:
I make sure I always buy organic soy products. I try not to eat highly processed soy foods on a regular basis, like soy-based sausages and readymade vegan "meats" or even tofu, although I do enjoy and eat these occasionally. Instead, I recommend eating soy in the form of edamame-- crunchy, delicious soybeans which you can lightly steam and eat as a snack or turn into any number of delicious dishes. I also try to make sure I eat a diet that does not depend largely on soy for protein: other beans and grains are just as rich in protein and offer welcome variety in a vegan diet..
Have you wrangled with the question of soy in your diet? Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts.
My recipe for today uses tofu as a base instead of yogurt which is traditionally used for this dish in Indian kitchens. Tofu makes a great yogurt substitute because it is rich in protein, just like yogurt, but has none of the cholesterol of yogurt. It also tastes surprisingly like yogurt when seasoned perfectly. While there are alternatives to homemade tofu yogurt, like store-bought soy yogurt and nut-based yogurts, I find these less appealing for a number of reasons. Store-bought vegan yogurts are not easily available everywhere and are sometimes too sweet for my taste. Their texture can also be iffy. And nut yogurts, although a popular and delicious alternative, pack too many calories and fat. Half a cup of tofu, for instance, has just 100 calories and 11 grams of fat. Half a cup of cashews has nearly 400 calories and 32 grams of fat. Take your pick.
This recipe includes deep-frying, so it goes without saying that it's a once-in-a-while treat. But the ingredients in here are fabulously healthy: black lentils, or udad dal, besides the tofu. I use a few different spices to flavor the yogurt, and you can always experiment with your own favorite spices.
Enjoy the recipe, all!
Dahi Vada (Thayir or Curd Vadai)
For the vada:
1 cup udad dal (black gram dal), soaked for 2 hours
1-inch knob of ginger, chopped
3 green chillies, minced
Salt to taste
Oil for deep-frying, heated to around 360 degrees
Drain the soaked dal thoroughly. Place in a food processor with the ginger and chillies and salt and process into a coarse, fairly solid paste.
Form the vadas by picking up a lump of the batter, about one inch in diameter, and pressing it out on the palm of your hand (I like dampening my palms with some water to prevent the batter from sticking.)
Drop the vadas one by one into the hot oil without overcrowding them. Flip the vada when the underside turns golden-brown. Remove to a rack or a paper towel when the vada is golden-brown all over.
Tip: Always ensure your oil is not too hot or too cold. Too cold oil will cause the food to absorb the oil, which is bad for your waistline, of course, but will also end up in soggy vadas. Oil that is too hot will cause the outside of the vada to brown rapidly, before the inside gets cooked.
1 12-oz package of MoriNu firm tofu
1/2 cup of soymilk or other non-dairy milk like almond milk or rice milk (add more if the yogurt sauce is too thick)
Juice of 2 lemons
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp roasted cumin seeds, powdered
1 tsp paprika or other mild chili powder
1 tsp chaat masala (optional)
Salt to taste
Place all the ingredients in a blender and process until smooth.
To serve the vadas, pool some of the sauce in the platter, place the vadas in the center, and pour more sauce on top. I like my vadas to be more on the crispy side, so I tend not to pour sauce over the top, but it's up to you, really. You can also sprinkle some paprika and some roasted, powdered cumin on top, for a little extra zing.