CAPSULE REPORT: The Chinese have been eating tofu for more than 2,000 years. Tofu is a Pacific Rim staple, and is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. with the growth of vegetarianism and the realization of tofu’s health properties and culinary versatility. This is Page 1 of a three-page article. Click on the black links below to visit other pages.
Tofu can be a misunderstood food. Some people have purchased it without knowing how to prepare it, and find it bland; or they haven’t realized that different recipes require different textures of tofu, and have used the wrong kind with disastrous results.
But tofu is on the brink of a breakthrough. It was not all that long ago—the 1960’s, in fact—that yogurt was looked upon as a food for health food fanatics, available only at health food stores. The people who today see tofu as the domain of Asian cooks and vegetarians may, a few years hence, see it as a versatile healthy food that, like yogurt, can easily be incorporated into any meal, including dessert.
Tofu, or bean curd, is a soft cheese-like food made that is made by curdling soy milk with a coagulant*. The curds are pressed into rectangular or square blocks, similar to the way cheese is made with milk curds. Tofu is made in a variety of textures—soft, firm, and extra-firm—that have different purposes. Most tofu is made from organic soybeans.
*Usually a salt: calcium sulfate (gypsum), Nigari (magnesium chloride plus other salts and trace elements), or gluconolactone. Cheese is usually coagulated with rennet, which is extracted from the lining of calves’ stomachs.
Versatile: Tofu is an exceptional food—not only because it is highly nutritious, but because it can be prepared in such a remarkably wide variety of ways. The uses for tofu are limited only by a chef’s imagination.
So easy to incorporate into any dish or snack, even by novice cooks, we can start our new year’s resolution of eating healthy without any pain.
Nutritious: From a health and nutrition standpoint, tofu is an easily digestible protein, low in fat and sodium, and a good source of B vitamins and calcium plus and isoflavones. Tofu is sold in supermarkets, health food stores and at many greengrocers. It is also easy to make at home with soy milk.
Note that many manufacturers sell tofu made with GMO soybeans. Look for non-GMO brands, like House Foods.
Legend has it that tofu was made by accident when a Chinese chef added nigari, a natural ocean water mineral (a seaweed extract now used as a coagulant to make soy milk curds), to flavor a soybean purée. Instead of flavored soybeans, he ended up with the bean curd that we call tofu.
Extremely popular in Asia, the history of tofu goes back more than 2,000 years, to the Han Dynasty of China.
Archaeologists deduce that soy milk and tofu, two staples of Chinese cuisine, were first prepared in Northern China in the second century B.C.E.
From China, tofu was introduced into Korea, and reached Japan in the eighth century C.E., where it was originally called okabe. Its current name did not come into use until around 1400.
Cubes of tofu, ready to be cooked.Photo courtesy BBC Good Food.
Centuries later, the first tofu factory in America was founded in 1878 in San Francisco, to meet the needs of the burgeoning Chinese population.
Tofu remained a localized artisanal product. It wasn’t packaged and offered in U.S. supermarkets until 1958, engendered by an incipient healthy eating movement.
While the soy industry began with small family-run concerns that went door-to-door selling tofu or soy milk in their vicinities (not unlike local home milk deliveries in the U.S.), over the past two decades, food manufacturers and restaurants worldwide have embraced tofu’s culinary versatility and the growth of vegetarian and vegan lifestyles plus medically-necessitated food substitutions.
A vast range of tofu-based products now replace the dairy and meats in familiar American foods, like ice cream, burgers, and salads.These days, it’s almost hard to imagine a time when we had few tofu choices.