Origins and authentic cuisines
China: the birthplace of tofu
Tofu has been around for centuries. Today, the soybean is considered the most important legume in the world. The exact origin of tofu, however, is not so clear. Since tofu is made in a similar way to cheese, it is likely that the tofu-making process copied the cheese-making process, the latter of which can be traced back to the Mongolians. However, legend has it that King Liu An from the Chinese Han Dynasty invented tofu in the 2nd century BC. In any case, Chinese historians agree that tofu only emerged as a common product in the 10th century AD. Tofu was embraced as an alternative to meat primarily in Buddhist countries.
What is sure is that tofu arrived in Japan early on, but only became popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s difficult to imagine a menu today that doesn’t include the ‘white wonder’. Every Japanese dish uses its own kind of tofu, and in every village you can find a tofu shop where fresh soya milk and tofu are prepared daily.
Tofu was also an important food early on in Korea. From the 15th century, dubu – Korean for tofu – has been widely used in Korea. It was and remains mainly something prepared in temples by Buddhist monks.
Vietnam is the only country in south-east Asia where tofu consumption is widespread (Vietnam was a colony of China from 111 BC to 939 AD). Tofu – dau pu or dauhu in Vietnamese – is prepared the Chinese way. You will find plenty of tofu-based vegetarian dishes, and they even make ‘fake meat’ and ‘fake fish sauce’ from tofu.
People in Thailand were only introduced to tofu in the 1930s when the Chinese were accepted and an interest in Chinese food emerged. In Thailand, tofu is mainly used in Chinese recipes, but you will also find tofu used in vegetarian Thai curries, or deep-fried and served with a sauce.
Singapore and Malaysia
In multi-cultural and multi-religious societies such as Singapore and Malaysia, tofu is used but not as a main ingredient. The people there are crazy about stuffed tofu pockets!
Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a true tofu country, though tofu there is not made using soybeans but with chickpea flour, water, salt and turmeric. The tofu is prepared like polenta (maize porridge). When placed in the fridge, the porridge becomes firm and can be cut into cubes and prepared like tofu.
India was a latecomer in adopting tofu. It was not until the end of the last century that tofu was accepted, because of religious reasons. In India, paneer (a fresh cheese) is used, and although it is made in the same way as tofu, it uses the milk of the holy cow. For this reason, paneer had a higher status than tofu. This changed in 1985 when a vegetarian cookbook put tofu forward as a healthy alternative to paneer.
Tofu was introduced in Indonesia through the spice trade. Tofu is called tahoe and is completely embedded in the cuisine, although the majority of Muslims prefer tempeh. Tempeh is a cake-like product made from pressed and fermented soybeans, and is the way soybeans and other beans have been prepared there for centuries. Indonesian dishes using tofu are often spicy.
In the Netherlands tofu is known as tahoe from Indonesian cuisine, in particular as tahoe goring, fried tofu in a spicy sambal sauce, which is one of the classic Indonesian rijsttafel dishes. In the Netherlands, tofu only really became known in the 1970s, as a meat substitute. Then, under the influence of Japanese cuisine, the name changed from tahoe to tofu.
It wasn’t until the early 1970s that the rest of the world was introduced to tofu, thanks to the increased interest in Buddhism and the vegetarian lifestyles of famous pop stars like John Lennon. The hippies followed and discovered tofu as a great alternative to meat; they were the first to use tofu in western dishes. At the end of the 20th century, with the disappearance of the hippies and their matching lifestyles, tofu was relegated to something only consumed by vegetarians and vegans. Only at the beginning of the 21st century did tofu resurface as a sustainable source of protein and the perfect plant-based alternative to animal proteins. Nowadays, tofu is recognized as a great source of protein amongst the Millennials (Generation Y), and considered to be an incredibly versatile ingredient in the kitchen. Tofu has transformed from a typical Asian ingredient to a global ingredient and a trending topic on social media. Here on Tofupedia you’ll find the best tofu-related articles, recipes and tips from around the world.