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by Carley Dove-McFalls
march 8th, 2021
by Carley-Dove Mcfalls
Tofu is one of those foods you either love or hate. To some, including myself, this spongy block of protein (which contains all nine essential amino acids!) can be used in any meal whether it be breakfast, lunch, or dinner. To others, its texture, plain taste, and unknown cooking methods discourage them from ever buying or tasting it. However, with increasing environmental consciousness and the rise of vegetarianism and veganism, tofu has steadily risen in popularity—in February 2019, Canada even had a tofu shortage!
As a plant-based athlete, ensuring I have enough protein on my plate is one of my main concerns. Knowing where my food comes from is also one of my priorities, as it not only allows me to respect and understand the agricultural processes crucial to our survival, but it also allows me to learn about and celebrate different cultures. Although tofu is a staple on my weekly shopping list, its origins were mysterious to me until very recently. Tofu production has become worldwide with the help of globalization, but its East Asian historical roots deserve to be known.
Without further ado, let’s uncover the mystery of tofu.
What is Tofu?
Most people know that tofu is soy-based. Soybean plants, native to Southeast Asia, were first domesticated by farmers 9000-5000 years ago, but have now become one of the most important crops worldwide. Through a number of different processes, raw soybeans (which are toxic to humans) have been transformed into food for consumption, animal feed, and industrial purposes (such as soy-based plastics, textiles, and fibres). Ford even invented a car made out of soybean plastic!
Tofu is essentially soybean curd and its production process is very similar to that of cheese: soya milk is curdled and pressed into blocks of different textures. Today, several different types of tofu, such as firm, silken, or pouch tofu, can be found worldwide. But who came up with it?
The first specific mention of tofu dates back to 950AD, but four prominent tofu invention theories exist and they all designate China as the product’s originating point well before that date.
The Mongolian Import Theory
The most probable theory is that of the Mongolian import. In the 4th to 7th centuries AD, China, was exposed to a Mongolian cheese-type product brought by nomadic dairying tribes. To identify the product’s processing methods—or, as also suggested, to qualify the “barbarian” Mongolians—the Chinese baptized the foreign product using a character meaning “spoiled”. Rising popularity of the Mongolian commodity is thought to have inspired the Chinese to replicate the production process with soy milk and nigari, a coagulating agent. It is ironic that a product which was ungraciously named upon its arrival quickly became a staple in the nation’s cuisine.
The Indian Import Theory
The second import theory illustrates how translations of historical exchanges can lead to very dissimilar interpretations, challenging the credibility of our knowledge about the past. This hypothesis is inspired by a story filled with double meanings. It goes as follows: Fu, a Chinese lower class man of the Ch’in dynasty (221-206BC), decided to ask a South Indian monk visiting China to become his disciple. In return, the monk asked Fu if he wished “to become the heart and mind of the God of heaven, earth, and nature, rinse off all superficial knowledge, and follow [him].” Interestingly enough, however, this question can also be translated as “wash soybeans well and make them into tofu”. Which of these two interpretations is true will probably never be known, but this exchange may very well be the originating point of tofu.
The Accidental Invention Theory
A third theory proposes that tofu originated from a (fortunate!) soup-making incident. It explains that sometime prior to 600 AD, someone noticed that curds formed when seasoning a soybean soup with nigari. As an experimenter in the kitchen, I can see this happening—sometimes trying new things leads to disasters, and other times to creating an incredibly popular international food!
The “Liu An” Theory
Finally, despite it being the most improbable of all theories due to lack of evidence in historical documents, the “Liu An Theory” is the most popular and relates to traditional Chinese views on the product. The speculation is that Liu An, grandson of the Han Dynasty’s (206BC to 220AD) founder and king of the “South of the Huai River”, invented tofu. This speculation first emerged in the 12th century, when it was discovered that a poem written during his time mentioned soy milk. Moreover, a book that alludes to soybeans and bean soup was compiled under his reign, hinting that the ingredients to produce tofu were already widespread at the time. The Chinese, in the fashion of attributing the invention of culturally-important symbols to ancient people of noble birth and high virtue, named Liu An “originator of tofu”.
After Liu An’s tragic passing, legend says that instead of dying, eight immortals of the Taoist mythology (a Chinese philosophy which preaches harmonious living with the universe’s natural order) brought him up to heaven and made him immortal. This magical story mirrors the somewhat magical processes needed to convert colourful soybeans into white spongy tofu cakes. Liu An’s immortality could also be explained by him consuming tofu frequently, a food considered to ensure a long and healthy life by the Chinese.
Cultural significance of tofu and its expansion worldwide
Throughout Chinese history, poems comparing tofu to jade, books presenting the food’s medicinal and therapeutic properties, dynastic menus containing the ingredient, widespread traditions of offering the food to the deceased, and beliefs that the product is linked to the spread of Buddhism in the region demonstrate its preciousness to Chinese culture. Although tofu has become less widely available in China, the food is incredibly important to the nation’s heritage. Tofu shops can be found in almost all of the country’s villages and one of the typical Chinese meals consists of tofu, rice, and cabbage.
Soy and its products slowly expanded to the rest of the world. In 1183, tofu was used as an offering at a Shinto shrine in Japan; over 400 years later, tofu was mentioned for the first time in a European language. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that the product was made in Europe and in North America, and even later that it was commonly found in supermarkets worldwide. Now, the product’s popularity is skyrocketing because of its versatility and affordability—in March 2020, tofu sales were up 66.7% in the US compared to the same period in 2019.
Where we have to be careful
The soybean industry has expanded immensely. Since the 1950’s, production has increased 15-fold and is leading to deforestation of diverse landscapes and displacement of indigenous communities. Although 80% of soybeans produced are for cheap and effective livestock feed, tofu is still linked to an environmentally-harmful industry. Choosing organic and local soy products can help reduce one’s carbon footprint. Check out scoring guides, like this one, to guide you in your journey to finding the most sustainable tofu.
Learning about the culturally significant history of this product makes me appreciate it as a delicacy I am lucky to have. Knowing where it comes from, its production process, and how it is intricately bound to Chinese cultural identity bridges an international and emotional connection to food that sustains us. I firmly believe that understanding production processes and the significance of food can have an impact on how humans relate to one another and can break down the problematic nature-human dichotomy.
Tofu recipe ideas
Here are some of my “go-tos” with tofu:
Adding 1/4 cup of silken tofu to any smoothie for an extra protein boost
Crumbling tofu to make a scramble and pan frying it with some veggies (onion, garlic, tomatoes, carrots, zucchini…anything you’ve got, really) and spices (turmeric and cayenne are my favourites!)
Adding it to a vegetable curry, stir fry, or pasta sauce for some texture and energy!
It is also possible to make tofu from scratch by following this process.
Meet the creative
My name is Carley Dove-McFalls (she/her/hers) and I am an intern writing for Human. I was born and mostly raised in Montreal—I spent a couple of years in Northern Quebec and a year in Berlin (Germany) growing up—and I am now studying Sustainability and Urban Studies at McGill University, which are two things I am truly passionate about and greatly influence my writing. I am a competitive swimmer and enjoy cooking vegan food, painting tapestries, gardening, cycling, listening to podcasts, and doing spontaneous activities with friends and family in my free time.