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The History You Must Know of Tofu

Tofu is often associated with vegetarians and animal welfare (because that’s what vegans and vegetarians mostly advocate aside from eating healthy). On the other hand, some people may not like the taste of tofu, saying that it has no taste or tastes rather weird. Thankfully, a lot of delicious dishes using tofu are created that everyone can enjoy.

Where does tofu come from?

However, have you ever wondered where tofu came from? If you are interested to know the history of tofu, read and learn more about tofu’s origins and how it became known all over the world.

But first, what is tofu?
For starters, tofu, also known as bean curd, is a soy-based food made from curdled soya milk. Similar to how cheese is made, soya milk is curdled, pressed, and then cooled down. It will eventually form into a block that will be known as tofu. In some Asian countries, tofu is considered as gastronomically important in staple cuisines the same way Westerners regard dairy and meat.

There are different types of tofu including silken tofu, firm tofu, and fried tofu. Tofu is also a staple food ingredient in some Asian cuisines. As we may all know, some Asian countries do not eat beef or pork mainly due to their religious beliefs. That is why tofu is a great meat alternative that won’t compromise their personal beliefs.

In terms of nutritional content, tofu is low in calories. That is why dieters prefer to eat tofu to aid in their weight loss. In addition, tofu also contains high protein levels as well as magnesium and iron, all of which are mostly present in real meat.

The origin of tofu
Tofu was said to be invented around 2,000 years ago during the Han Dynasty. On the other hand, the first writings about tofu were documented around 900 AD during the Song Dynasty. Apparently, the Song Dynasty scribes wrote that a certain Prince Liu An had invented tofu back in the days.

Another story about tofu’s origins includes a story about a man who found a way for his parents to eat soft food. According to the legend, the man’s parents, being old and lost the ability to chew food, decided to cook soybeans and made it like soup.

At first, his parents did not like the concoction because it has no taste. So he decided to add salt into the soup, reheated it, and then left to cool down. Shortly after, he found that the soup had become like jelly. Curious of how it tasted like, he scooped a little bit and actually liked it. He served the “jelly-like” dish to his parents, and they liked it as well.

Eventually, the recipe for tofu reached Japanese shores around the 8th century through seafaring Buddhist monks. Originally, it is said that tofu wasn’t called as is, but rather as “okabe”. Tofu had become a staple food among nobles and samurais and eventually throughout the country. Centuries after, tofu eventually became a staple food ingredient among commoners.

Apparently, tofu was only called as we now know it in the 1960’s. That same decade also paved way for the concept of “healthy eating” among Westerners. Likewise, several studies have found tofu and soya’s potential health benefits as well as different ways to prepare it. Regardless of its true origins, one thing is for sure – tofu is destined to take over the world cuisine.

Tofu reaches the West
This soy-based product eventually reached Western shores which is said to be due to an influx of Asians immigrating to Europe and Americas. More so, tofu has somewhat become a household name, thanks to a man named Benjamin Franklin. Yes, Benjamin Franklin – the one who flew a kite in a middle of a thunder storm and the one portrayed on the $100 US dollar bill.

According to a letter dated January 11, 1770, as consolidated and preserved by The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, he wrote to his best buddy John Bartram about a “cheese made… in China”. The letter also stated that the “Chinese cheese” he saw and became curious about was made by putting “runnings of salt” and then “put into water when the meal is in it, to turn it to curds.”

Aside from “Chinese Garvances” which he thought the same ones used to make tofu, Franklin also sent the tofu-making recipe and “green dry [peas]” to Bartram to be planted on American soil.

Franklin’s description of tofu – or that “cheese made… in China” as he put it, was said to be tofu’s earliest documented description that reached American soil. On the other hand, tofu has already been known as early as the mid-1600’s by a Dominican friar named Domingo Fernandez Navarrete.

The friar had visited Asian countries including China, where he apparently discovered “strange things people in China eat”, including the “Chinese cheese” as mentioned by Franklin to his letter to Bartram. Navarrete’s logs also mentioned how to make tofu using what he called “kidney beans” when he actually meant soybeans.

Some historians also believed that Franklin and Bartram, being passionate horticulturists as well, planted the first tofu on American soil. According to historian Caroline Winterer, some imported foods would come from faraway places, which would inevitably rot and perish by the time it reached its destination. Hence, importing seeds from other countries and growing them locally were the best solution people did.

Whether Franklin and Bartram did produce the first American tofu or not, the boom of agriculture in this part of the world undoubtedly paved way to, as Winterer puts it, “the spirit of experimentation and collaboration” which resulted to the abundance of crops and foods we know of today.

Tofu is perhaps one of the most interesting foods in the world. It also has its own fair share of fans and haters. Some may like tofu due to its health benefits and tofu taste, while some do not like its bland taste. Nonetheless, we must be grateful that tofu is invented.

Without tofu, vegans and vegetarians won’t have an appropriate meat alternative for their protein needs. It also provides a replacement for those who do not eat meat due to their religious beliefs. Meanwhile, if you are one of those tofu haters, there’s always beef, chicken, or pork for you to eat.

At the end of the day, it’s about personal taste and preference that will prevail. But of course, we should not disregard the people behind the invention of the foods we now enjoy – including tofu.