Tofu Planting Lessons

Written By: Suzy González

Tofu. A versatile and protein-rich food enjoyed by some and yet feared by others. The quintessential idea of healthy food--that before becoming vegan, I believed was just as bland as the media had portrayed it. Such is not the case! Not only is it an essential food group in East Asian countries, but it has quickly become vital for many plant-based eaters around the world. Whether it’s baked, broiled, fried, barbecued, boiled, or steamed, the one thing to know about tofu is that its spongy characteristic will beautifully absorb the flavors introduced to it.

While today tofu is used in a multitude of recipes and throughout cultures, the question remains: What is the story behind our favorite soy-bean-based food? Tofu is believed to have originated in China’s Han Dynasty over 2,000 years ago. One story is that Prince Liú Ān invented it either in an attempt to create a concoction of immortality or to produce a soft and nutrient-dense food for his grandmother. Another story is that the technique of curdling soy was learned from neighboring Mongolian cooks who relied on dairy in their diets and had knowledge of cheese-making methods using animal milk. While pinpointing the exact origin story may be difficult, we do know that we have the Chinese people and their culture to thank for this unique food source.

After its creation in China, tofu was introduced to Korea and then brought to Japan by Buddhist monks in the eighth century C.E., where it was first called Okabe. Monks of Zen Buddhism who abstain from eating meat or fish adhere to a strict vegetarian diet known as “Shojin” cuisine. Tofu has long been an important protein-rich food source to these communities. 

Tofu, or bean curd, is made from soybeans. The process begins with soaking soybeans aka soya beans in water and grinding them into a puree. The puree is cooked and strained to create soy milk. The tofu is then produced by combining hot soy milk with a coagulant such as nigari, which comes from seawater. This curdles the soy, and the resulting bean curd can then be shaped into blocks and cooked in a myriad of ways!

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From its Chinese origins, we now see tofu in a myriad of foods in the Americas such as veggie burgers and a personal favorite, soyrizo. Soy products have made their way into the competitive commercial plant-based meat movement. This can be what separates the junk food vegans from the whole foods vegans, and I often find myself in a state of fluidity. At times I think these exist more for omnivore curiosity or a more comfortable transition into veganism more than for vegans themselves. While I do agree that vegans should have the freedom to also partake in processed and fried foods (think vegan fast food), leaning to whole soy and organic products like tofu, edamame, and fermented soy products (like tempeh and miso) is one way to avoid genetically modified and processed foods. Although I believe in the concept of food as medicine, it is equally important to me that food be a choice, while being mindful of food apartheid and the lack of access to whole foods. Alas, to each their own, there’s no right way to be a vegan, and we do what we can with what we’ve got!

Every soy-based product on the market has tofu to thank, as they exist as direct descendants of the original. Masquerading as new Americanized foods, soy chikn nuggets (albeit delicious) and meats that claim to be impossible are actually just the latest versions of more than 2,000 years of innovative cuisine. While any plant-based product is hopefully providing better options for human health, the environment, and animal livelihood, we must honor tofu as the OG of vegan meat alternatives. So the next time you’re about to take a bite of a soy-based food product, remember to appreciate its rich cultural history that’s not new just because the white vegan market chose to capitalize on it. Let us give thanks to the legacy of these creative and inventive Chinese chefs!

Tofu is full of energy-boosting protein, has no cholesterol, is a great source of calcium, and is low in sodium and fat. We typically see it in either firm or silken varieties. While firm and dense tofu can hold up great in stir-fries and other savory dishes, the softness of silken tofu lends itself to sauces and creamy desserts. I’ve heard from some folks that they just don’t know where to start with tofu, and they end up giving up on it. Don’t give up! It is truly a delicacy if prepared correctly. Here are a few tofu tips I’ve learned:

1.     Press your tofu. With firm tofu, remove as much liquid as you can by folding in a tea towel or paper towels and placing something heavy on it like a ceramic bowl or cast-iron skillet. Don’t put too much weight on it if you’re cutting it into cubes. You can also invest in a tofu press.

2.     Marinate your tofu. The water that is removed by pressing can be replaced with yummy flavors because tofu is super absorbent!

3.     Scramble your tofu. I’ve found pressing to be unnecessary if I’m making tofu scramble and want to maintain its moisture. Squish it between your fingers into an oiled pan and add turmeric for color, spices of your choosing, and even black salt if you’re looking for an eggy flavor.

4.     Coat your tofu. Try dusting it with corn flour before frying or baking to add crunch. Or be creative and try smashed cornflakes or other flours or dry pantry items.

5.     Freeze your tofu. When frozen and then cooked, a different texture is achieved that can satisfy the desire for a heartier plant-protein dish.

6.     Experiment with silken tofu. Try making vegan quiche, puddings, cheesecakes, smoothies, alfredo sauce, and more!

7.     Make tofu deli slices. Slice your tofu thin, marinate in your desired flavors, and even consider adding a hint of liquid smoke if you’re into that. Bake on a low setting and have your deli slices on-hand any time you’re looking for a quick sandwich or wrap.

8.     Bake tofu steaks. Try marinating in barbecue or teriyaki sauce or coat in a dry curry rub before baking thick slices of tofu. Serve with mashed potatoes and steamed greens for some satisfying plant-based meat and potatoes.

9.     Stir fry your tofu. I cook firm tofu cubes in hot oil in a wok and add soy sauce, rice vinegar, ginger, and garlic, sautéing until the tofu is crispy. Throw in some cooked rice and cook a little longer for tofu fried rice.

10.  Make cheese with tofu. Firm tofu makes a wonderful ricotta cheese (hello lasagna!) while silken can work for creamy spreads. Enjoy!

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