On the surface, tofu might look like a bland, boring, vegan cooking ingredient, but the history of tofu is surprisingly interesting…

1. Tofu is made like cheese

While tofu is entirely vegan, with no meat or dairy products involved at any stage, the process of making tofu is remarkably similar to cheese making.

When making tofu, you take dried soybeans, soak them in water, crush them, and boil them. The end mixture is then separated into pulp (“okara”) and soy milk. Sodium is then added to the milk to separate the curds and the whey. The curds are pressed into solid white blocks to become what we know as tofu.

2. Tofu is an excellent source of vegan-friendly protein 

Once upon a time, most people in the US believed that plant-based protein was inferior to protein from animals. However, tofu is an excellent source of healthy, planet-friendly protein. It’s also naturally low in fat and calories, gluten-free, and is rich in iron and calcium.

3. Tofu may have medical benefits

Not only does tofu offer a whole host of nutritional benefits, but it can also offer a range of medical benefits, including:

  • Lowing the risk of medical conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • Enhancing the skin and hair.
  • Boosting energy.
  • Reducing the likelihood of high blood pressure and atherosclerosis.
  • Aiding in maintaining a healthy weight, BMI, and cholesterol levels.
  • Improved kidney function.
  • Reducing bone loss (especially after menopause) and reducing symptoms of osteoporosis.
  • Relieving symptoms of menopause.
  • Repairing and preventing liver damage.

Some studies suggest that tofu (and whole soy foods in general) can reduce the risk of developing certain cancers. There is also evidence to suggest tofu could be linked to a reduction in mental deterioration associated with old age.

4. Tofu originated in China but has a Japanese name

We know that tofu was first made in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), and the oldest evidence of tofu making has been dated back to 25-220 AD (depicted in a Chinese mural).

The word “tofu” is derived from the Mandarin word, “doufu,” which literally translates to “curdled bean.” However, “tofu” is a Japanese word and is closely tied to Buddhism.

5. The story of the first tofu is a mystery

Although we know where and roughly when tofu was invented, the actual story of its conception is a mystery. There are three main theories about who invented tofu:

  1. Tofu was created by Prince Liu An of the Han Dynasty, nephew to the Emperor of China (179-122 BC). During this time, any discoveries were attributed to the province’s current ruler.
  2. Tofu was made by copying dairy-milk cheese-making processes developed by the Indians and Mongolians.
  3. Tofu was accidentally created when someone tried to season pureed soybean soup with seawater.

Which is your favorite?

6. Benjamin Franklin first brought tofu to the US…

The earliest written record of tofu’s existence by any American comes from Benjamin Franklin in 1770. It was in a letter written from Franklin to John Bartram with a description of a “cheese” made from soy curds and seawater. He also sent Bartram a parcel of soybeans to try it for himself.

7… But it didn’t become popular until after 1971.

Tofu might have been popular with American politicians in the 1770s, but it didn’t really gain popularity in mainstream US diets until 1971. The key? Francis Moore Lappe’s book Diet for a Small Planet.

In this book, Lappe dispelled the myth that plant-based protein was somehow inferior to animal products, and introduced the concept that a meatless diet is better for human health and the planet. Well done, Lappe!

8. Tofu is virtually flavorless

One of the most frequent arguments you’ll ever come across by those who claim not to like tofu is that it’s bland! And this is absolutely true!

Without seasoning, tofu tastes like… well, nothing.

But while this can be seen as a negative… Anyone who knows what they’re doing knows that the flavourlessness of tofu is actually the secret to what makes it so special.

With a bit of preparation and seasoning, you can make tofu taste like anything you like!

9. There are many different types of tofu

At the store, you might notice a multitude of different types of tofu on the shelves. Most commonly, these are silken, soft, medium, firm, extra-firm, and super-firm. This tells you how much water was pressed out of the soy curds during processing: the more water is removed, the firmer the tofu becomes. Firmer tofu also contains more fat and protein per gram than soft tofu.

As a general rule, if you’re frying, baking, or otherwise cooking tofu, firm or extra-firm is the way to go, as firmer tofu will hold its shape better in the pan. Silken tofu is great in more creamy foods such as smoothies, desserts, salad dressings, and dips.

10. Preparation is king

Frequently, when someone claims not to like tofu, it’s because they have no idea what to do with it!

When tofu arrives (whether homemade or from the store), even the firmest block will still contain excess water from processing, which needs to be squeezed out before use. If you don’t remove the liquid, tofu will be incapable of absorbing the seasoning that gives it flavor, and it will also be impossible to get it crispy, and it will likely just break up when cooking.

Once you’ve prepared your tofu, the options for this unassuming block of soy are virtually limitless. Make vegan chorizo crumbles, add it to a salad, or even try the world-famous Tofurky for a meat-free alternative to the classic Thanksgiving roast!