What Is Tofu And Where Does It Come From?-Chinese bean curd

Food plays an important part in Chinese history, culture, and in any Chinese celebrations. The Chinese love to celebrate any festive season by enjoying rich, healthy, and special dishes. One of the most popular foods is Tofu, which is a high-fiber food and a great source of protein. Read on to learn more about what exactly Tofu is, its history, and how to make it.

What is Tofu food?

What is tofu history? Tofu, which is also known as bean curd, is a popular Chinese food which is prepared by curdling soy milk and then pressing the resulting coagulated substance into a solid white block. The block could be super firm, soft, or silken, and there are many varieties of tofu, which we will discuss in this write up. Its origin traces back to the Han dynasty and it has been consumed in China for over 2,000 years.

Generally, tofu has an ingenious taste that is not immediately obvious, so you can use it in both sweet and savory dishes without altering their flavor. Often, it is seasoned or marinated to match different recipes and its spongy texture easily absorbs flavor. In terms of nutritional value, tofu is a good source of plant-based proteins and it is very low in calories. In addition to that, it is very high in iron and has a sufficient amount of magnesium and calcium. It is a great addition to vegan and vegetarian diets, and it is also a great ingredient in meat dishes.

Who invented Tofu?

liu an tofu

According to Chinese historical records and other literary works, tofu-making originated in the Han Dynasty about 2,000 years ago. Supposedly, tofu was invented by Prince Liu An of Anhui province, who reigned between 179 and 122 BC. It was then introduced to Japan during the Nara period, between 710 and 794 then it got to Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia. Supposedly, the spread of tofu-making and production was accelerated by the Buddhist belief that their East Asian Buddhism vegetarian diet needed a great source of protein, and tofu was the perfect fit. Ever since Li Shizen from the Ming dynasty described a tofu-making method, it has become a stable in several countries, including Thailand, Vietnam, and Korea.

There are several legends, fables, myths, and stories that attempt to explain the origin of tofu. One of the most popular theories about who invented tofu claims that tofu was an accidental invention. Supposedly, a cook was in the middle of an experimental cooking period when he flavored soybeans using a type of seaweed known as ‘Nagari’. He ended up with bean curd and it was very delicious. He told everyone about it and popularized tofu-making.

Another common legend about who invented tofu is that it was made by Prince/Lord Liu An of Huai-nan. However, this is greatly contested and most scholars and food critics are convinced that this wasn’t true. The reason behind their argument is that important inventions were always attributed to important leaders of the time, but this wasn’t the case with Prince Liu An and the tofu invention.

Besides those two, another tofu origin story claims that a man discovered tofu when he was trying to feed his parents. According to this story, the man tried all kinds of tricks with cooking soybeans in attempt to make it much easier for his elderly parents to eat. Apparently, his parents had issues with their teeth and could only eat soft food. In the process, he blended soybeans, passed the blend through a cloth, seasoned it, heated it, and when he cooled it down, it became the infamous and greatly loved tofu.

The other theory that attempts to explain the invention of Tofu claims that tofu was crafted based on the cheese-making process. According to this legend, the infamous tofu was created after copying the cheese-making methods of different Mongolian tribes who lived along China’s northern border. These tribes and the East Indians often drank milk, and this was considered a very unusual practice in nearly all Asian countries, but the Chinese were greatly fascinated by the cheese-making process.

Tofu (popularly known as Chinese curd at the time) was introduced to Japan by various Zen Buddhist monks. In America and other parts of the world, Benjamin Franklin is considered the first American to talk about tofu in a letter to John Bartram. He encountered tofu on a trip to London and always identified it as cheese from China.

Ever since it was invented, it has been a great source of protein and a great additive in vegan and vegetarian dishes.

What is Tofu made of?

is tofu made of soybeans

Chinese tofu is made of soybeans that are curdled and pressed into solid blocks, and the process is almost similar to the cheese-making procedure. In addition to that, Chinese tofu contains Nigari, which is the liquid that is left over after salt is carefully extracted from seawater. The Nigari is what you often find the Chinese tofu lounging on once you open its packaging. The Nigari simply gives tofu its spongy texture and iconic shape, and it is very rich in minerals, so you can consider it nutritious. Along with that, tofu is sometimes fortified with vitamins such as B12 and minerals such as calcium or magnesium. This is mostly because it is a great meat substitute for vegans.

The whiteness of Chinese tofu is usually determined by the soybean variety, the degree of aggregation of the tofu gel network, and the soybean protein composition. In addition to that, the yellowish-beigeish color of soybeans is associated with color compounds such as isoflavones, anthocyanin, and polyphenol compounds. That said, the soybean variety that is used actively predicts the color of the final tofu result. To reduce the yellow color of the Chinese tofu, the isoflavone content needs to be reduced so changing the pH of the soy milk solution that was used in the production of the tofu. In the process, any relevant compounds seamlessly precipitate out and these are removed during the extraction of the okara. Also, adding high levels of calcium salts or a higher protein content actively contributes towards forming a much dense and aggregated gel network that disperses more light, and the end result is tofu with a much whiter appearance. In that regard, you can easily find all these ingredients in Chinese tofu.

When it comes to flavor, the tofu flavor is often described as subtle and bland in North America, but the East Asians comfortably describe its flavor as beany. The bland or beany flavor is mostly generated during the grinding and cooking process. In this case, a hot grind or cold grind directly influences the final taste of the tofu. The hot grind method reduces the beany flavor, while the cold grind method produces ester volatile, alcohol, and aldehyde compounds that create beany flavors. That said, you are likely to find these ingredients indicated at the back of the tofu packaging.

Types of Chinese Tofu

There is a wide variety of tofu types and flavors that are available in the Asian markets, Western markers, and other worldwide markets. Despite the wide range of options, Chinese tofu is split into two main categories: processed tofu, which is fully produced from fresh tofu, and fresh tofu which is made directly from soy milk. That said, let us expound on some of the different types of Chinese tofu. They are;

Fresh Tofu

Fresh tofu, which is also known as bean curd, originated in China. It is mostly made from soy milk, a curdling agent, and water. Its production is similar to the cheese-making process, as it is made from curdling soy milk. Thereafter, the resulting curds are slowly pressed into blocks that look like chunks of cheese. It often comes in plastic containers in the produce or refrigerator section of nearly all grocery stores.

In addition to that, fresh tofu is very high in protein and minerals such as calcium and iron. It has very little fat and low calories. It has very little flavor, which can be quite hard to detect and it barely has any smell. Even so, it has the ability to easily absorb new flavors through various spices and marinades that you use for a particular recipe. That said, you can always add fresh tofu to things like blended sauces, purees, smoothies, soups, and any other recipes. Also, you would be impressed by the fact that fresh tofu easily minimizes any added fats and oils that may be used during any common cooking methods. The different types of fresh tofu are;

Soft/Silken Tofu

Soft/Silken Tofu is the typical tofu that is popularly eaten in South China, and it is usually used to make savory soups. Also, it is often a great additive to saucy recipes, such as smoothies and dressings, and you can also use it as a substitute for eggs or yogurt. It is very white in color and it has the highest amount of moisture of all fresh Chinese tofus. Along with that, it is very delicate and heavy, and it easily falls through your fingers under its own water weight. For this reason, you need to handle it as carefully as you would a poached egg.

Besides that, soft/silken tofu is very difficult to pick up using chopsticks, which is why it is often eaten with a spoon. Sometimes it is served at breakfast with the addition of flavorings such as chilli sauce, properly chopped spring onions, soy sauce, or dried shrimp.

Firm Tofu

Firm tofu, which is mostly found in North China, has a yellowish-beige color and it easily regains its shape whenever it is pressed. It is made from denser soy milk, and very little moisture is added during the milk production process. In addition to that, it has the firmness of raw meat and the texture inside the firm tofu is almost similar to that of a firm custard or paneer.  Generally, its skin easily retains the pattern of the muslin that was used to drain it and the exterior part is more resistant to any damage than the inside part. That means that you can easily pick up firm tofu using chopsticks.

Aside from that, it you should know that firm tofu is found in areas such as mountain villages, remote islands, and heavy snowfall areas where traveling is inconvenient. Also, it is the most ideal option for stir-frying.

Dried Tofu

Dried tofu is extra firm and it contains the least moisture out of all tofu types. It is great for stews, soups, vegetables, chili, and bean dishes. Also, it is a great additive for dishes that have hiziki and arame sea vegetables. All in all, it is quick to cook and it is a great source of high-quality vegetable protein. In addition to that, it has a very low amount of saturated fat, is sodium free, and is cholesterol free. Often, it is recommended for home use and camping. Also, it looks like loose-cooked noodles and you can choose to serve it cold or stir-fried, depending on your preference

Processed Tofu

Several forms of processed tofu exist. Processing techniques were invented before refrigeration was introduced to preserve tofu or to increase its shelf life. There are two main types of processed tofu, which are;

Pickled Tofu

marinated tofu chinese

Pickled tofu, which is also known as fermented or preserved tofu, consists of small cubes of dried tofu that have been air-dried under the hay, then allowed to ferment with the help of aerial bacteria. When dry, it is soaked in vinegar, rice wine, salt water, and minced chili for further fermentation.

Stinky Tofu

stinky tofu changsha

Stinky tofu is a smelly kind of quick snack that has a strong odor that is often described as fecal or rotten. It is fermented in a vegetable and fish brine, which explains its pungent fish smell that sometimes resembles rotten food. It is a delight to aficionados who claim that it is a savory dish and they value its texture. Often, it is served with soy sauce, hot sauce, sweet sauce, or spicy sauce, which often adds to its flavor.

Why do Chinese eat Tofu?

Tofu and soybeans are a great part of Chinese culture. Generally, a woman who is very beautiful but is also poor is said to have bean curd beauty (Tofu Xishi). One of the four great beauties of China, known as Xi Shi is said to have been so beautiful that fish would freeze and sink to the bottom of the river when she washed her veil by the river. For this reason, her name was synonymous with beauty. In a certain novel hometown, Aunt Yang who was a very beautiful shop owner was named ‘Tofu Xishi’. Since then, the name was used to describe ladies with beautiful faces who are needy.

Besides that, another Chinese legend claims that a young couple ran a tofu shop in Chan’an where the husband always took time to make tofu at night, while the wife would keep the shop during the day. His wife was very beautiful, and her beauty made the Chinese believe in the effectiveness of tofu on cosmetic skin care.

In addition to that, tofu is an important dish on the reunion table during the Chinese New Year/Lunar New Year. This is mostly because the word ‘tofu’ sounds like the word that means fortune and happiness in Chinese. Based on this description, the Chinese believe that eating tofu frequently brings good luck to the whole family and everyone sharing in the meal.

How to make Chinese Tofu

Chinese tofu is made from dried soybeans that have been soaked in water for some time, well crushed, and then boiled at high temperatures. The resulting mixture is then carefully separated into soy milk and solid pulp, which is commonly known as okara. Salt coagulants, such as magnesium and calcium chlorides and sulfates, are actively added to the soy milk to separate the curds from the whey. In certain cases, acid coagulants, such as glucono delta-lactone and citric acid, may be used in the process.

Once done, the soy milk is then poured into molds so that the carbohydrate-laden whey can drain off. The resulting product is soft cakes, which are then cut into small squares before they are stored under water until the time when they are sold. During the production process, Chinese tofu can be made extra soft, firm, silken, or extra firm, depending on how they are produced.

Regardless of the brand, product type, or the specific scale of production, the production of Chinese tofu essentially comprises three important steps;

  • The preparation of soy milk, which is the first step,
  • The curdling of the soy milk to form curds, which are known as douhua,
  • And the slow pressing of the soybean curds to form solid tofu cakes

The entire tofu-making process is similar to the production of dairy cheese, which involves the coagulation of dairy milk to form curds before pressing and aging the curds to form dairy cheese. The general process involves cleaning, soaking, and grinding the soybeans in water, filtering, boiling, coagulating the soy milk, and pressing to form solid cakes.

One of the most important steps in making Chinese tofu is the coagulation of the protein and oil emulsion that is suspended in the boiled soy milk. To do this, coagulants are used and the coagulation process entirely depends on complex interactions. The main determinants of the final result are the exact percentages of soybeans used, cooking temperatures, variety of proteins in the soybeans, and coagulation temperatures, among other essential factors.

How to cook Chinese Tofu

Tofu is a very versatile ingredient but it can get worse if you do not cook it correctly. When you blend it, it has an amazing creamy texture, and you can use it in pudding or a vegan mousse. It is also great as a creamy ricotta substitute and you can use it in nearly all recipes that you own. You can also use it to add protein to salads, noodles, and other dishes. All in all, it is easy to use, but there are a few important tips that you need to know before you start cooking with Chinese tofu;

First, ensure you select the right tofu texture to match your recipe. Remember that tofu types range from soft to firm. If you are serving tofu as the main dish or are topping it onto bowls, you may need to go for the extra firm tofu, but you should go for silken tofu if you are blending it into desserts or are trying to make soup.

Second, ensure to press the tofu before cooking. Without a doubt, tofu contains a lot of water so you may need to squeeze most of it out if you are planning to fry, grill, or bake the tofu. Do this carefully to avoid crumbling the tofu.

Third, remember to spice up the tofu. More often than not, tofu becomes bland or flak because it is not well seasoned or salted. So you may want to marinate or season your tofu, if you want to enjoy a hearty meal.

Why is Tofu good for you?

Tofu serves as an important source of protein, especially for vegetarians and vegans. Along with tham ti contains both estrogen-antagonist properties, which may help protect you against some cancers, osteoporosis, and heart disease.

Because it is plant-based, a diet with tofu is known to contribute to overall health and general well-being. Additionally, eating dishes with tofu can significantly lower the risk of conditions such as diabetes and obesity, as it has very low calories, sugar levels, and fat levels. Also, tofu actively boosts your energy levels, helps you maintain a healthy weight, and is known to enhance your skin and hair.

According to most researchers and scholars, tofu has a high level of isoflavones, which greatly lower the risk of multiple lifestyle and age-related diseases. However, you should know that the overconsumption of tofu can present a few risks. So, you may need to dine on your favorite tofu dishes in moderation.

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