In the world of plant-based foods, tofu has quietly risen from its humble origins in ancient China to become a global culinary phenomenon and one of the most versatile, nutritious, and enduring staples found in cuisines across the globe. This unassuming, soybean-derived white protein block with its subtle flavour is hailed as a superfood thanks to its impressive nutritional profile and benefits in combating a bunch of health conditions.
In modern cuisine, tofu is not only celebrated for its health benefits but also for its extraordinary adaptability. It can be silken, soft, firm, or extra-firm; it can be seared, grilled, scrambled, or even blended into smoothies and desserts. Its culinary transformations transcend cultural boundaries, fitting seamlessly into vegan feasts, vegetarian diets, and meat-eaters’ plates alike, proving its status as a chameleon of the food world.
Yet, despite its popularity, tofu is often misunderstood and occasionally maligned by the uninitiated, who may hastily dismiss it as bland or uninspiring. This article seeks to demystify this famous food, taking you through its ancient origins, the process of its creation, its ascent to the tables of the health-conscious, and the explosion of creative ways in which it is consumed around the world today.
What Is Tofu to Begin With?
Tofu, or bean curd, is a popular soy-based superfood product which has gained popularity worldwide as a versatile and nutritious ingredient. Basically, it is made from condensed soy milk that is later pressed into solid white blocks of varying softness. These blocks can be used in a variety of sweet and savoury dishes.
These curdled blocks are a good source of protein and is low in calories and fat. This makes them perfect for vegetarians, vegans, anyone intending to lose a bit of weight and everyone who is following a healthy lifestyle anyway.
Tofu has a long history that dates back thousands of years, primarily in East Asia, yet there seem to be different theories about its origin. The most widely accepted one is that it originated in China, likely during the Han Dynasty, sometime between 206 BC and 220 CE. The earliest documented mention dates back to the 2nd century CE in Chinese texts.
One popular legend attributes the invention of this distinct food to Liu An, a prince and scholar who lived during the Han dynasty. He accidentally curdled soybeans while he was only experimenting with them. Another theory suggests that it was developed as a way to preserve soybeans and make them more digestible, especially for Chinese monks who followed a vegetarian diet.
Aside from how it came into existence, what is evident is that tofu has been around for thousands of years. Over time, this early ancestor evolved into the popular ingredient we know today. Do you know what that means? Yes, it is actually the oldest-known processed food in the history of humanity.
The tofu-making techniques spread to other parts of East Asia, including Japan, Vietnam, and Korea, over the centuries. They were adapted and incorporated into various cuisines, leading to the development of multiple varieties and dishes in these regions.
This Chinese superfood made its way to Japan around the eighth century, likely introduced by Buddhist monks. The Japanese variant became an integral part of Japanese cuisine and was incorporated into various dishes such as miso soup, hot pots, and more.
Eventually, tofu made its way to other parts of the world, including Southeast Asia and Western countries, where it gained popularity as a versatile and nutritious food product. Today, it is widely and globally consumed and appreciated, both for its health benefits and its adaptability in various culinary traditions.
Besides being a plant-based protein, tofu is also a good source of several other essential nutrients and minerals. Yet, it does have many types and its nutritional value changes based on the type and the preparation process. Anyways, here is a general overview of the nutritional content of a 100-gram block.
- Calories: Approximately 76 calories
- Protein: About 8 grams
- Fat: Around 4.8 grams
- Saturated fat: Approximately 0.7 grams
- Monounsaturated fat: About 1.1 grams
- Polyunsaturated fat: Around 2.4 grams
- Trans fat: Virtually none
- Carbohydrates: About 1.9 grams
Additionally, this food is an excellent source of minerals such as calcium, which is necessary for bone health; iron, which is in charge of creating red blood cells and transporting oxygen all around the body; and potassium, which helps the cells and organs to function properly.
All this is in addition to magnesium, copper, sodium, phosphorus, and zinc, which all contribute to various bodily functions, including vision, energy production, cell growth, and nerve function.
Tofu is made through a relatively straightforward process that involves several steps, starting with soybeans and ending with the formation of the famous white curdled blocks or shapes. Here is a simplified overview of how they are made.
First, soybeans are prepared by soaking them in water for several hours, better off overnight. This rehydrates the beans and makes them easier to blend. The soaked soybeans are then drained and blended with fresh water to create a thick, smooth soybean paste or soybean milk.
After that, the soybean milk is heated to a boil in a large pot or kettle. This step helps remove any raw or beany flavours and also sterilises the mixture.
Then comes the most crucial step, coagulation. Once the soybean mixture is heated, it is removed from the heat, and a coagulant is added.
Common coagulants include magnesium chloride (nigari), calcium sulphate (gypsum), or a combination of both. The coagulant causes the soy proteins to curdle and form curds.
As the mixture cools, the curds (the solid part) and whey (the liquid part) separate. The curds are the basis, while the whey can be discarded or used for other purposes.
The last step is pressing the curds and then moulding them into blocks. The curds are then carefully ladled into moulds or containers. The moulds can be lined with cheesecloth or other similar materials to help with the draining process. A weight or press is applied to the curds to remove excess whey and compact tofu. This helps to achieve the desired texture and firmness.
The blocks are left to set and drain for a period of time, which can vary depending on the desired firmness. Once they have set and reached the desired consistency, the blocks are carefully removed from the moulds. It can then be cut into blocks, slices, or other shapes and is typically packaged for distribution and sale.
There are many types and varieties of tofu available, and the specific number can vary depending on regional traditions, culinary preferences, and processing methods. Some may use slightly different techniques and ingredients, but the fundamental steps outlined above are the basis for its production.
While it is challenging to provide an exact count due to the wide range of tofu products globally, we tried to summarise some of the most common types.
That said, it is essential to differentiate between a variant and a dish. A tofu variant can be silken, soft, firm, or extra-firm, depending on some processing factors. A dish, however, is one where tofu is cooked with other ingredients. As we will see in the next section, it can be fried, grilled, simmered or cooked in any other way.
1. Silken and Soft
Silken tofu has a delicate, custard-like texture and is very smooth. It is often used in dishes where a creamy or silky texture is desired, such as soups, smoothies, dressings, and desserts.
This type is available in different levels of firmness, including extra soft and soft. The soft type is slightly firmer than the silken one but still has a tender and delicate texture. It is commonly used in many Korean and Chinese dishes.
2. Firm and Extra Firm
Firm tofu has a denser texture compared to the silken or soft types. It holds its shape well when cut and is often used in stir-fries, scrambles, many salads, and as a meat substitute in various recipes.
This type can be further pressed to drain more water and make it even denser, known as extra-firm. This is the firmest variety and thus has the least water content. It maintains its shape even when cooked at high temperatures and is suitable for grilling, frying, baking, or slicing into cubes for various dishes.
3. Smoked and Stinky
Smoked tofu is typically infused with a smoky flavour through a smoking process. This process gives the curd a distinctive and savoury taste reminiscent of grilled foods. It is often used as a flavourful addition to salads, sandwiches, and refreshing appetisers.
There is also the Stinky type, which, as you may have guessed, is known for its strong and pungent aroma. It is more popular as a street food in some Asian regions.
Tofu can be marinated or seasoned with various herbs, spices, and sauces to add flavour and versatility. This type is ready to use in salads, sandwiches, or stir-fries without additional seasoning.
5. Tofu Skin (Yuba)
Tofu skin, also known as yuba or bean curd skin, is a byproduct. It forms on the surface of simmering soy milk and is collected as sheets or rolls. Such skin is commonly used in Chinese, Japanese, and vegetarian cuisines in soups, salads, and stir-fries.
Frozen tofu is regular tofu that has been frozen and thawed. This process changes its texture, making it chewier and spongier, which can be desirable in some dishes like hot pots.
As tofu is an incredibly versatile ingredient, it can be used in a wide range of dishes, both savoury and sweet. Some belong to certain Asian cuisines, and others are popular in many countries alike. Here are some popular dishes from different cuisines.
In China, for instance, some of the common tofu dishes include Mapo Tofu, which is a spicy Sichuan dish featuring soft tofu, ground pork, and a flavourful sauce made with chilli bean paste, Sichuan peppercorns, and fermented black beans.
Chinese people also like to stir-fry tofu cubes with a colourful mix of vegetables and various seasonings or sauces or simmer them in a savoury and aromatic sauce made from soy sauce, sugar, and other seasonings.
Additionally, there are tofu noodles, which are used in soups with various toppings and seasonings, as well as tofu pudding, which is silken tofu served with a sweet ginger syrup or a savoury soy sauce-based dressing, making it a popular Chinese dessert.
Japanese cuisine, known for its delicate flavours and attention to presentation, also features a variety of tofu dishes.
For instance, Japanese people have their own deep-fried tofu dish called Agedashi dōfu. They also simmer tofu in a kombu (kelp) and water broth and serve it with various dipping sauces like ponzu. Besides, there is tofu steak, which involves grilling or pan-frying tofu until it develops a crispy exterior, then serving it with a flavourful sauce, often teriyaki or miso-based.
Japan even uses tofu skin as a wrapper for sushi, often filled with ingredients like rice, vegetables, or seafood.
Korean dudu dishes vary in flavour and texture, with some dishes being spicy and savoury while others are sweet and refreshing. This versatile ingredient plays a significant role in Korean cuisine, offering a range of options for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian palates. Here are some popular dishes:
- Sundubu Jjigae: Sundubu jjigae is a spicy stew made with soft tofu, kimchi, vegetables, and often seafood or meat. It is flavoured with gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes) and served hot.
- Dubu Kimchi: Dubu kimchi combines tofu with spicy and fermented kimchi, creating a flavourful and spicy side dish or appetiser.
- Dubu Jorim: In this dish, tofu is braised in a savoury sauce made with soy sauce, garlic, sugar, and other seasonings until it absorbs the flavours of the sauce.
- Dubu Buchim: This is pan-fried tofu that is often seasoned with a soy-based sauce and served as a side dish or appetiser.
- Dubu Jeon: These are savoury tofu pancakes made by mixing tofu with vegetables and seasonings, then pan-frying until golden brown.
- Dubu Ssam: In this dish, tofu is used as a wrapper for various fillings like seasoned vegetables, meats, or kimchi, similar to lettuce wraps.
In Western Cuisine
While traditionally associated with Asian cuisines, tofu has gained popularity in Western cultures over the past few decades due to its versatility, health benefits, and suitability for vegetarian and vegan diets. In Western cuisine, it is used in many different ways and incorporated into a wide range of dishes. Here is how tofu is commonly used in Western culture:
- Scramble: Tofu is crumbled and cooked with spices, vegetables, and sometimes vegan cheese to create a vegan alternative to scrambled eggs. It is often enjoyed as a breakfast dish.
- Stir-Fries: Tofu is a popular protein source in stir-fry dishes, where it absorbs the flavours of the sauces and seasonings and pairs well with vegetables, noodles or rice.
- Burgers: Tofu can be mashed and mixed with various ingredients to make vegan and vegetarian burgers. These burgers are often grilled or pan-fried and served on buns with toppings.
- Salad: Silken or soft tofu is used in salads as a creamy and protein-rich addition. It is typically blended into salad dressings or used as a base for vegan Caesar salads, among others.
- Desserts: Tofu is used in dessert recipes to create healthier alternatives to traditional dairy-based desserts, such as cheesecakes, puddings, and mousse are popular examples.
- Ricotta: Tofu can be blended with herbs and seasonings to create a dairy-free alternative to ricotta cheese, used in dishes like lasagna and stuffed pasta shells.
- Smoothies: Silken tofu is blended into various smoothies to add creaminess and extra protein, making them a satisfying and nutritious beverage option.
- Tacos and Wraps: Seasoned and grilled tofu can make a great filling for some Mexican dishes, such as tacos, burritos, and wraps, providing a protein-rich alternative to meat.
- Dips: Tofu can be used as a base for creamy dips and spreads, such as vegan ranch dressing or mayonnaise.
Tofu is a remarkable ingredient that has transcended cultural boundaries to become a beloved and versatile staple in cuisines worldwide. Originating in ancient China, it has travelled far and wide, finding its place in the kitchens of many nations and earning its reputation as a valuable source of plant-based protein and a canvas for culinary creativity.
Its ability to transform into a wide range of textures, from silky smooth to chewy and crispy, makes this superfood an essential ingredient for both savoury and sweet dishes. It caters to diverse dietary preferences, accommodating the needs of vegetarians, vegans, and those seeking healthier, protein-rich alternatives.