Food History #2: Tofu


Tofu is something that many vegetarians and vegans eat but do you know the history of this delicious and nutritious food? I decided to make tofu my second subject in my food history blog series! So read on and learn bits from this food’s long history that spans the globe!


Quick and Brief History

There are three theories of its origin. The first is that it was invented by a prince during the Han Dynasty (164 BCE) in Northern China. Though this one is less likely because it was said that many stories gave credit where it was not due, particularly gave credit to royals when they didn’t deserve it. Not surprising. The second is that it was an accidental discovery when a mixture of boiled ground soybeans and impure salts created some curdling and made a “tofu-like gel”. I’d say this is probably closer to the truth because I find that quite a few of our technological advances in science were accidents. The third and last is that Ancient Chinese people modeled it after milk curdling techniques from East Indians. This is because of the similarity in language (rufu and doufu/ tofu). This could also be true because why not? Even though they didn’t have internet, ancient peoples were super connected.

Since before the 2ndcentury, Tofu has been eaten in China. In the 8thcentury, it was introduced to Japan as well as other part of Eastern Asia. The rise of tofu coincided with the rise in Buddhism and is said to have done so because of the vegetarian diet of many Buddhists. A book featuring 100 recipes for cooking tofu, Tofu Hyakuchin, was published in the do period which is from 1603-1867.

Tofu in the US

Tofu made its way to the US during WWI by a Chinese-American doctor named Dr. Yamei Kin. She (yes she!) was bicultural, being born in China but then being adopted by US American missionary doctors when her parents died of cholera when she was just a toddler. She came to the US to study at a womxn’s medical college in New York. During her time at a federal government department that was the predecessor to the FDA, she studied soy beans as a possible, less expensive alternative to proteins being rationed because of the war. Though it didn’t really didn’t stick until the 60s and 70s with the rise of counterculture, Dr. Yamei Kin was the first to introduce tofu, and soy beans in general, to the US. 


What is it and is it healthy?

 Tofu, also called doufu, is made from curdled soymilk. Tofu means bean curd. It is eaten primarily in Asian countries, though it’s growing in popularity. It has no taste of its own and can be seasoned to be added to sweet or savory dishes. The word “tofu” is based of Japanese as bean curd in Chinese is “doufu”.

There are three varieties of tofu: silken or soft, Asian firm and Western firm. Asian firm is a medium firmness and it’s more solid than silken but not as solid as Western or extra firm. What makes the differences in the firms is the amount of water that is extracted from the tofu during the making of it. 

Tofu is high in iron and has no cholesterol. And depending on the process of the manufacturer, it could also be high in calcium and magnesium. It is also high in protein, about 10% for firm and 5% for soft. It also contains soy isoflavones which studies have conflicting findings as to whether regular consumption of tofu can be harmful or beneficial, though it is looking like there is a strong association between soy consumption and decreased risk of breast cancer. In one study, it was said that these concerns were based on animal models and that the majority of research done on human models have be positive and “In support of safety is the recent conclusion of the European Food Safety Authority that isoflavones do not adversely affect the breast, thyroid or uterus of postmenopausal women.”

 If you’re interested in more of the science behind the nutrition, there are some references below that I found. Warning in that they are super dry as most scientific papers are.

 Another food history down. I hope that you enjoyed it.  Anything surprising? Did I miss anything? Comment below!  




Health Impact References