All About Tofu

Tofu is a white, bland-to-tasteless, odorless food that in its block form resembles cheese; when it is fermented, tofu may go by the nickname of “Chinese cheese,” or less becomingly, “stinky tofu.” But plain white tofu is perhaps the most recognized and cooked-with form of the processed soybean.

From Soybean to Tofu

So how did the soybean become tofu, or bean curd, or doufou, tofu’s other names? One piece of folklore points back to a Han dynasty (later Han Dynasty, a.d. 25–220) cook who stumbled upon this food quite by accident when he mixed unrefined sea salt, which contains a natural coagulant, with a porridge of cooked soybeans and found the mixture coagulated. Chinese food historian E. N. Anderson shuns that tale, pointing to the late Tang or early Sung dynasties (a.d. 907–1209) as the most likely time frame.

Still other versions persist, but no matter which tale is true, the important point is that bean curd, or tofu, was born. And when they discovered it, vegetarian Buddhists quickly embraced this soybean product as a fine meat substitute—and tofu eventually found its way from China to Japan and then to much of the rest of the world.

In its earliest Chinese days, doufou was a peasant food, much desired as a source of low-cost protein. But it seems that a Ching dynasty emperor (the dynasty began in a.d. 1644) discovered doufou when wandering in one of the provinces, and thenceforth, bean curd became court food.

As if by magic, the white blocks of tofu have been transformed into various tofu products: the silken tofus, reflecting the Japanese way of processing the soybeans; the dried tofu sheets known as bean curd “skins” popular in Buddhist Chinese vegetarian cooking; fermented tofu; fried tofu; puffed tofu; dried tofu; flavored tofu; and tofus available in very soft, soft, firm, and extra-firm textures. That’s a plus for modern cooks, who like to experiment in the kitchen with assorted tofu products.

If you have the desire, patience, and skills, you can even make tofu at home. The soybeans require lengthy soaking, then grinding and further processing. Or you can use soymilk plus a coagulant and strain the mixture for a speedier process. A faster way to make tofu, though, is to order a tofu-making kit or machine and follow directions. And the fastest way of all: use the Japanese-made instant tofu mix made from soymilk powder and other ingredients: just add water and stir.

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