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Humans have enjoyed and relied on tofu for a very long time. The first record mentioning tofu occurred all the way back in 965 A.D. China where it was widely consumed by both the rich and poor. It was first documented in Japan shortly after, in the diary of a Shinto priest who used it as an offering to the shrine’s alter.

Today, tofu remains an important food staple in east Asia, who’s usage is fairly analogous to Westerners’ need for meat, milk, or cheese.

Fresh tofu.
Fresh, house-made tofu continues to make a splash in the restaurant scene.

How is Tofu Made?

Tofu is created from soybeans. First, the soybeans are soaked, then ground, and filtered into a milk. Next, coagulants are used to form curds, and to manipulate the beans into a chosen texture or firmness. These soft, white blocks don’t carry much flavor by themselves. However, tofu has a remarkable ability to soak up the flavor of the food, broth, and sauce it is cooked with.

soybean seedlings
Soybean Seedlings
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Tofu: A Long and Delicious History

As previously mentioned, tofu’s long history most likely began around 965 A.D., China. This “meat without the bones” was very popular for its high protein and calcium levels and was thought to remove toxic substances and cool the body. Tofu was also used as a treatment for health conditions such as dysentery (if cooked with vinegar) and jaundice.

Despite the location of its inception, “tofu” is a Japanese word. “Tofu” made its first literary appearance in 1182. Later, in 1489, the word was captured in text with the characters still used in modern-day Japan. Its popularity flourished by way of Japanese Buddhist monks and their carefully crafted meals or “shojin ryori” (Zen Buddhist vegetarian cuisine).

Today, citizens and tourists visiting Japan still experience authentic shojin ryori for themselves. These authentic establishments are run by Buddhist Monks and are located inside beautiful temples. For instance, one outstanding example of shojin ryori is found at the Daitokuji Zen temple in Kyoto. At Daitokuji-Ikkyu, the monks have kept their multi-course, plant-based restaurant running for over 500 years.

Another historical tofu-based cultural experience in modern day Japan is at Sasanoyuki in Tokyo. This tofu restaurant, whose name means the beauty of snow upon bamboo leaves, first opened its doors in 1691 and has been serving happy customers for over 300 years.

What Can Tofu Do For You?

Tofu is a nutritional powerhouse that offers many health benefits including but not limited to:

  • High levels of protein
  • High levels of calcium and magnesium
  • Essential and nonessential amino acids
  • Other vitamins and minerals including zinc, B1, manganese, and copper
  • Cancer prevention
  • No cholesterol
Sesame seeds, tofu, and vegetables
A tofu and vegetable dish is the perfect vegan addition to any menu. Even Guy Fieri enjoys and encourages plant-based meals.

A Truly Versatile Protein

Tofu is extremely versatile and is enjoyed baked, frozen, deep fried, stir fried, and even turned into a dessert custard. Styles and methods include:

  • Silken: As the name implies, very soft and delicate.
  • Firm: The best option for stir fries.
  • Hong Fu Ru and Fu Ru: Red and white varieties of pungent Chinese fermented tofu.
  • Okara: Soybean pulp made into baked goods.
  • Yuba: Fresh tofu skin sliced into noodles.
  • Sprouted: Made from sprouted soybeans, this type of tofu is easier to digest and contains more absorbable nutrients.
grilled tofu
Firm, seasoned, grilled cubes of tofu and vegetable kabobs.

The Future of Tofu in the United States

Despite being inexpensive, versatile, and rich in protein, throughout the past several decades many Americans thought of tofu as a confusing and unsatisfying food for tree huggers that was devoid of any flavor. However, pandemic-related problems at meat packing plants, issues with livestock, and an increase in health awareness has led more Americans to look into the healthy meat substitute already embraced by millions.

For the truly health conscious, it is a better meat alternative than plant-based burgers; tofu isn’t heavily processed and has 40% fewer calories than the typical plant-based burger. Not to mention, with food prices continuing to rise, tofu remains a very affordable purchase. As with the rise in plant-based products, we project tofu will continue to trend upwards.

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