Tasty Tofu Bites–And A Small Musing About Intellectual Property Law

Tried out a new recipe for dinner tonight. And since I didn’t make it up myself, I feel like I can talk it up a bit: it was delicious. Just wonderful. “Restaurant Quality,” as they say. I practically had to tie myself up to keep from eating the leftovers that I’d planned to have for later in the week.

Now, since this came from a published book, I don’t feel right reproducing the recipe for everyone, so I’ll just sketch out the basic idea.  The gist of it is, you throw a block of tofu, some scallions, ginger, garlic, and lemongrass, and a handful of breadcrumbs into a food processor. Make little patties out of the results, and then fry them up. The dipping sauce is probably not so proprietary (I’ve been given the same recipe several times by other folks), and it’s the key to the whole thing, so I’ll spell it out in full: one part honey, two parts soy sauce, two parts orange juice and a dash of chili sauce to match your desired spiciness. Then whisk it all together with a fork so the honey dissolves. Add scallions to make it look fancy, and sesame seeds if your Korean roommate offers to lend you some.

You can find the full thing in “30 Minute Vegetarian,” By Joanna Farrow, a really delightful little volume that an old girlfriend of mine and I bought for $1 from a used books bin one summer when we thought we would try to spend a lot of time cooking together. Didn’t happen, and the book went unused for three years, but it’s more than paid for itself now.

Which reminds me, the whole question of whether it’s ethical to reproduce a recipe from a published book online does nicely illustrate the messiness of the concept of “intellectual property,” I have to say. On the one hand, it feels right to say that a unique recipe like this one deserves to “belong” to Ms. Farrow in some sense. On the other hand, her book has a few other recipes in it like “Feta Cheese Pizza” that basically amount to “make pizza the way anyone else would. Oh, but use Feta.” In a case like this, where all she’s done is put a semi-novel twist on an old staple, how can you claim any ownership? And if you can, what’s to stop me from re-printing this recipe, since after all I decided to add some chopped erd bell peppers which aren’t mentioned in the original (and really do add something, I think.)

It’s hard enough to figure things like this out in the case of musical composition, since so many songs share the same structure at their most basic level, so the odds that two of them sound a bit alike can become pretty high over time. Still, in such cases, it’s usually easy to at least “feel” the difference between plagiarism and similarity, even if it’s not legally easy to define. But a recipe? How much do I have to change before it becomes mine anymore? One ingredient? Two? Three? Or perhaps it depends on the size of the recipe, like say, “10% of the ingredients listed.” And what if I just change things like the cook time and the order of the steps?

Unless I make some friends who do the cookbook equivalent of patent law, I’ll probably never know. But oh well, at least I have these fried tofu things to munch on in the meanwhile.*



*bu the way, I should really take this opportunity also to plug “Mori-Nu Silken Tofu,” which was some of the best and cheapest tofu I’ve ever encountered. Wonderful, wonderful texture, and about 15 cents an ounce. Which is more expensive than the cheapest tofus out there, but I’m secretly pretty sure those products are just bleached kitchen sponges masquerading as tofu anyway.





About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

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