Tofu (bean curd) serves as a protein- rich meat substitute, and is an inexpensive and popular staple of Chinese cuisine. PHOTO BY J. SAMUEL BURNER.

The Chinese food staple tofu, made from soybeans, is ancient. The discovery of how to process soybeans in order to derive food value from them was a breakthrough in human nutrition.

Scholars are not sure when the food tofu was first made, but the technology was well known in China by early medieval times and possibly as early as the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). Scholars have cited imitation of cheese making in the Altaic region—between Mongolia and China and between Kazakhstan and Russia—as one possible source of the technology. Regardless, one of the great breakthroughs in human nutrition was the discovery of how to process soybeans, which are difficult to digest, into nutritious tofu (doufu). To make tofu one soaks soybeans overnight, grinding them finely with water, boiling them into a slurry, and filtering the slurry to produce soy milk. The milk can then be precipitated (caused to separate from solution or suspension) using settlers, commonly magnesium salts, and pressed into slabs.

Recently tofu has become a staple of Chinese cooking as a readily available and inexpensive source of protein. Tofu is less well represented in early recipe books, but this status might be because of tofu’s common origins. Other tofu products include the fermented choudoufu (“stinking bean curd,” an acquired taste) and the “skin” (doufupi), which is skimmed off and dried.

Further Reading

Anderson, E. N. (1988). The food of China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Huang, H. T. (2000). Biology and biological technology: Science and civilisation in China series. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Huang, H. T. (2001). Fermentations and food science: Science and civilisation in China series. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press.

Shurtleff, W., & Aoyagi, A. (1975). The book of tofu. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.

Source: Buell, Paul D.. (2009). Tofu. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2293–2293. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Tofu (Dòufu 豆腐)|Dòufu 豆腐 (Tofu)

Download the PDF of this article