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Solid, white, and with a variety of textures, it is one of the most adaptable ingredients in Asian cuisine. It’s a great example of a plant-based protein; many vegans and vegetarians incorporate it into their dishes as a good substitute to meat and fish. But even meat eaters can find great joy in this small but mighty ingredient. Tofu is a wonderful meal in itself, that you can enjoy with all your loved ones.
Where does it come from?
Tofu is the product of condensed soy milk that is then pressed into block shapes and made to cool down. The process of curdling and solidifying soy milk is similar to how cheese is made, too! The name itself comes from the Japanese word tōfu. This in turn comes from the Mandarin doufu, which means “bean curd” or “bean ferment.”
Its history is complicated and tangled. There are three theories as to how the ingredient came to be. However, the most common takes place in the Han Dynasty, when a Chinese prince supposedly discovered the ingredient. Another theory suspects that it was accidentally discovered. Rumor has it that a chef accidentally mixed a batch of fresh soy milk with impure sea salt called nigari. Because the sea salt was still impure, its levels of calcium and magnesium salts would have been high. This would be enough for the soy milk to curdle, achieving the gel-like consistency we associate with today.
It came to Japan afterwards by way of the Zen Buddhist monks in the 8th century. In fact, the book Tofu Hyakuchin from the Edo period lists 100 ways to cook the ingredient! Chinese immigrants from the Fujian province also began introducing it to Southeast Asian countries, like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, among others. The demand and use of grew in Asian countries quickly, with more and more cuisines incorporating it into their meals.
But its rise didn’t reach the West until the 1960s, where more Western countries began expressing interest in Asian cuisine, healthy living, and vegetarianism. Because of said interest, it became more widespread, to the point that a variety of pre-packed tofu can be found in supermarkets across those countries now.
Tofu comes in a myriad of forms and textures. Typically, you can divide into “fresh” or “processed.” The former comes directly from the product of curdling soy milk, while the latter comes from fresh tofu itself. But within these two categories, there are also different variations that you can enjoy, depending on your preference!
Fresh tofu can either come unpressed or pressed. The former usually has extra soft or soft consistencies. Another name for extra soft tofu is sundubu in Korean. You usually eat extra soft with little to no seasoning. Its consistency is watery, loose and soft. It crumbles almost immediately, and is fairly similar to cottage cheese.
This can also be called “silken tofu.” Although the soft variety is more compact than sundubu, this variant contains a high moisture content, and is still quite delicate compared to the firm ones. In many vegan products, it’s silken tofu that works as the substitute for milk, cheese, and other dairy, as well as eggs.
Another form of soft tofu is douhua. Douhua is a popular breakfast in China, cooked akin to silken but left for a bit longer before serving. There is some debate as to whether or not we can actually consider douhua as a type of tofu or a food in its own right. However, its consistency and means of cooking are very similar to the ingredient. Other variations of soft tofu include black douhua (which stems from black soybeans) or edamame tofu in Japan, which is a light green color.
True to its name, pressed tofu refers to the ones that has been pressed and hardened into the block shape we know tofu to take. Firm tofu has the texture of raw meat, which is why this is the most commonly used type of tofu when looking for meat substitutes. Although chewy and rather firm, it still has a high moisture content. It isn’t as crumbly as soft tofu, and is definitely a lot more compact.
This kind of tofu, on the other hand, contains the least amount of moisture. It can either be firm like cooked meat or have a rubbery texture. You can serve this extra firm type of tofu cold, stir fried, or even added to soup –– the possibilities are endless!
If you’re already overwhelmed, don’t forget: all the types of tofu I’ve listed now only refer to the “fresh tofu” variant! There’s still the processed tofu you can try and enjoy.
Processed tofu refers to the products you can make from the fresh tofu. In supermarkets and groceries, you can usually find them labeled as pickled tofu, stinky tofu, and thousand layer tofu. Whether they’re fermented or frozen, processed tofu takes many forms, accompanying several people’s flavor preferences.
What’s your favorite type of tofu?
How do you cook it?
From its humble origins in China, bean curd’s popularity only grew over time, and has found a home in countries not only in Asia but worldwide. As we mentioned earlier, tofu is a versatile and dynamic ingredient –– suitable for almost any type of dish or cuisine!
There are so many ways to cook tofu –– so many different recipes to try! We Filipinos love tofu, or tokwa, as we know it, and incorporate it into all sorts of dishes. Tofu is a great meat substitute, soaking up the rich flavors that come with many of our main courses. But it’s also wonderful on its own, and is great in stir fry and other meals. Ever had crispy tofu skin before? With a nice Asian dipping sauce, this makes for a great appetizer or light snack!
The chewy texture of tofu goes great in several classic Filipino dishes. For instance, this pork adobo with tofu brings a delicious and slightly healthier twist to the traditional recipe. Tofu works well with pork, especially if you’re looking to reduce your own meat intake. In this recipe, we use less of the red pork meat and more of the tofu in order to maintain a more balanced diet.
One of the most popular tokwa dishes in Filipino cuisine is, of course, the flavorful and delicious tokwa’t baboy. Tokwa’t baboy is a combination of tofu and fatty pork belly liempo served in a delicious mix of soy sauce and vinegar. With other ingredients like onion, scallions, and peppercorn, tokwa’t baboy makes a great appetizer or side dish to meals like lugaw or arroz caldo. Its salty and sour flavor makes for a complex and tasty bite!
But if you’re more inclined to vegetables, tofu goes well with them, too! Just look at this Lumpiang Sariwa (Fresh Spring Roll) recipe. In this recipe, tofu and the other vegetables make for a refreshing and delicious bite. Another recipe to try is this tofu in black bean sauce, which is quick, simple, and oh so yummy!
But you don’t have to just use bean curd in appetizers and main courses –– you can also use it in desserts! As mentioned prior, tofu can be a substitute to several milk and dairy products. Using it in dishes like Leche Flan can still give you that consistency and taste you’re after. And of course, who can forget the ever classic taho? Sliced warm tofu served in a delicious sweet syrup is a great treat for any time of day. Plus, it’s so easy to make at home, too!
With its versatility and reliability in the kitchen, tofu is a wonderful companion for your dining table in any way, shape or form. Don’t be afraid to try it with your loved ones!
Is it healthy?
The short answer –– yes! Bean curd makes for not only delicious but nutritious meals at the dining table!
Because it is a soy product, bean curd has a high amount of legumes, which can help reduce risk of heart disease. Consuming a healthy amount of tofu also helps in reducing the risk of select cancers, such as in the breast, prostate, and digestive system. Soy isoflavones present in the ingredient help in maintaining blood sugar control –– perfect for diabetics!
Tofu is also a great source of protein and contains all the nine essential amino acids! It’s a great source of iron and calcium, which can make your bones and body healthy and strong.
There’s really no surprise as to why tofu has become such a popular and beloved ingredient in several cuisines around the world. Its adaptability and various forms make it suitable for almost any kind of meal. While it may be a humble ingredient, its flavor can really pack a punch, and can find a home on any dining table. And not only is it delicious, it also works wonders for your health.
For those on plant-based diets or looking to eat healthier, tofu really is the way to go. Don’t be afraid to try it today!