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What is tofu? Proven Benefits, Soy Myths, History, and 6 Recipes To Try Out

Mapo tofu - What is tofu?

Tofu is made pressing soybean curds into blocks. At least the most common version is. Below, we’ve put together a guide to tofu, from how it even came to be, to the soy-hormone myth, to all the benefits it offers.

What is tofu? Guide to tofu
Credit: Flickr / Attila Siha

Origins and history

Just like many superheroes of the food world, tofu has many origin stories battling for the top spot. In the most popular historic account, records state that Liu An, the King of Huainan (or, the Anhui provinces) in the Han Dynasty, created tofu between 179 and 122 BC — more than 2,000 years ago! Allegedly, Liu An was fixated on the idea of immortality and accidentally created tofu during one of his alchemical experiments. Another popular theory purports that the ancient Chinese adapted the milk-curdling techniques of Mongolian tribes to soy milk, creating tofu. The linguistic similarity between the Chinese (doufu) and Mongolian term for milk (rufu, meaning curdled milk) does make this theory sound likely. The last theory is that a chef invented tofu by accident. While all potential stories sound reasonable, tofu’s long existence on Earth predating modern forms of writing and history-keeping mean that we might never know exactly how this soy product got started.

What is tofu? Guide to tofu: Benefits, Soy Myths, Controversy

Evolution of tofu in culinary history (how it got popular)

Tofu has been enjoyed in Asia for more than two millennia, and holds a special place in the culinary oeuvre. It’s not just a hippie meat replacement or trendy source of protein — it’s central to the Asian culinary tradition and enjoyed in tons of different ways. 

Of course, the western world has a pretty different experience of the food item. The soy item is often touted as a staple item by the meat-free world, or adored by more open-minded food explorers. None of these categorizations make sense to the Asian world that’s been treating tofu like a product as common as bread for many generations. 

In the United States, tofu spread across the country starting in the early 1900s, coinciding with the migration of Chinese workers to work on the railways. Early on, tofu shops in major cities that had large East Asian populations (San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, New York), each hosted at least one “tofu shop,” where tofu products were made using soybeans imported from China. At this point, most customers were Asian, and the greater community had no knowledge of this soy product that was waiting to be discovered around the corner. 

Interest plateaued throughout the 20s, 30s, and 40s — and gained some momentum in the post World War II years of the 1960s. I guess that after the post-war boom of heavy meat consumption, some people were ready for a protein-packed alternative! 

Pair your next bowl of immi noodles with fried tofu!

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By the 1970s, tofu was readily available at natural and health food stores. It’s still interesting to think that for the better part of the century, most Americans had no idea what tofu was and that the only people who enjoyed it were “hippies” and others living on the left-most fringes of the counterculture spectrum. 

Many developments helped move it more and more to the forefront, assimilating tofu into the rotation of hearty protein products. First, there’s the Book of Tofu, written by Bill Shurtleff and his wife Akiko Aoyagi, which helped guide newbie tofu purveyors on the tofu production process and how to start a tofu business. Other new tofu entrepreneurs popped up by the end of the 20th century, focused on developing simple recipes that could easily work their way into the American palette, including dishes like tofu with teriyaki sauce and tofu salads. Some tofu-preneurs also realized that Americans were confused by foods packed in water, and came up with a way to vacuum pack the item. 

Most recently, during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, tofu enjoyed another major Google search boost. Google searches for tofu recipes doubled in 2020 and many TikTok culinary influencers were made via fun, tasty, and accessible recipes that people scrambled to try out. Some even say that 2020 is the year that tofu went mainstream in the US.

What is tofu and how is it made?

Tofu is a soy product that many people describe as mildly sweet, nutty, mild, and whose texture can vary from silky to chewy to spongy. 

Tofu is so easy to make, you could even do it yourself at home (though I won’t make any guarantees about your tofu’s quality). Essentially, you can make tofu by coagulating (or solidifying) soy milk and pressing it into blocks of varying softness. Of course, when it comes to mass-producing tofu, it’s a bit more complicated. Every block of tofu goes through various meticulous steps: First, soy beans are soaked in cold water for anywhere between 4 to 24 hours. Then, the beans are ground and cooked. At this point, the beans resemble soy milk more than tofu. 

Next, the milk is filtered and the soybean pulp is separated from the milk. The part that actually makes tofu what it is though, is the coagulation step, aka, the step where a coagulant such as magnesium chloride is added to the liquid part and transformed into the solid cube we know and love. And by the way, if the idea of a chemical being added to tofu freaks you out, don’t worry: magnesium chloride is essentially a chloride salt, or mineral, that’s naturally found in seawater and sea deposits. After pressing and pasteurizing the tofu, it’s ready to be enjoyed.

While the process for mass-producing tofu seems a bit tedious, remember that with soy milk and a coagulant, anyone anywhere can make tofu. 

Types of tofu

Now, while most people know tofu by its most common form, tofu all over the world is enjoyed in many forms. Some of the more common ones include:

Tofu skin - What is tofu? Guide to tofu: Benefits, Soy Myths, Controversy

Tofu skin

This is actually made without a coagulant, simply by peeling off the layers of “skin” that form when simmering soymilk. It’s not technically tofu as it doesn’t require a coagulant to transform soymilk into its more solid version. However, it’s still enjoyed as a proteinful and chewy ingredient that you can simmer in broth (it’s a popular hot pot ingredient) or cut into strips like noodles. 

Silken tofu - What is tofu? Guide to tofu: Benefits, Soy Myths, Controversy

Silken tofu

For tofu so delicate that you can easily slice into it with a spoon, you need look no further than silken tofu. This minimally processed tofu is popularly used in Korean soups or topped with soy sauce and sliced green onions and eaten as a side dish. 

Medium tofu - What is tofu? Guide to tofu: Benefits, Soy Myths, Controversy

Soft, medium, and firm tofu

We’re all familiar with the family of soft, medium, and firm tofu. Whether you’re using it in a stir-fry, in ramen, or in a stew, these three varieties make sure you never have to have a meat-free meal without a hearty portion of tasty tofu.

Fermented tofu - What is tofu? Guide to tofu: Benefits, Soy Myths, Controversy

Fermented tofu

This fermented, deep-red tofu gets it lush color from the fermented red rice yeast that works as a brining liquid. It’s also known as “fermented red bean curd” or Hung Fu Ru. 

Tofu pudding - What is tofu? Guide to tofu: Benefits, Soy Myths, Controversy

Tofu pudding

Silky, delicately soft, and almost pudding-like, tofu pudding is an uncurdled variation of tofu that speaks to the food’s versatility. It’s probably the easiest tofu to try and make yourself because it doesn’t require any pressing. Check out instructions to make your own tofu pudding here. Some people eat tofu pudding as a savory dish, mixing it with minced pork and brown gravy. I love eating tofu pudding like a dessert, paired with brown sugar and ginger slices.

…and more

Of course, there are endless variations on the above tofus. From tofu puffs and tofu noodles to abuurage tofu and five spice tofu, you can bet there’s a tofu variation that’ll cater to your exacting textural and flavor needs. 

Health benefits of tofu

First and foremost, tofu is an excellent source of protein. It’s actually the rare vegan choice that is a complete source of protein, meaning it contains all nine amino acids. According to the USDA, a single firm, half-cup portion of tofu provides:

  • 181 kcal
  • 21.8 grams of protein
  • 2.9 grams of fiber
  • 861 mg of calcium (66% of the Daily Value)
  • 73.1 mg of magnesium
  • 3.35 mg of iron
  • 209 IU of Vitamin A
  • 239 mg of Phosphorus 
  • 1.98 mg of Zinc
  • Has 0 cholesterol and trans fats
  • And just 3.5 grams of carbohydrates 

And that’s just from a half-cup serving. 

What is tofu? Guide to tofu: Benefits, Soy Myths, Controversy

Tofu vs. Meat

When we compare tofu and meat in terms of calories, tofu packs a bigger punch. For every 100 calories of tofu, you get 11 grams of protein. By comparison, ground beef has 8.9 grams of protein, while a 100-calorie serving of salmon contains 13.8 grams of protein. 

In terms of fat content, tofu also wins. One half-cup serving has 11 grams of total fats, while around the same amount of 85% lean ground beef (a generally healthier cut) offers 17 grams of total fats, not to mention 76.8 grams of cholesterol. 

Of course, I’m not here to meat-shame! A healthy, balanced diet can include protein from tofu, eggs, and dairy, as well as a bit from meat as well. Just saying: if you want to get the most bang for your buck, and please your stomach at the same time, opt for the tofu. 

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Variety is the spice of life. Get all three flavors including Spicy Beef, Black Garlic Chicken, and Tom Yum Shrimp. You’ll be covered for all occasions. immi Variety Pack

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What is tofu? Guide to tofu: Benefits, Soy Myths, Controversy
Credit: Flickr / Quinn Dombrowski

Soy myths

The main soy controversy surrounds the presence of phytoestrogens (isoflavones) in tofu. These plant-based compounds are thought to mimic the female reproductive hormone, estrogen, leading many people to conclude that soy products might lower their testosterone levels or lead to adverse physical effects such as breast cancer or thyroid problems.

But there’s no hearty science to back up such claims. In fact, one double-blind, randomized study, found that “after 2 y of daily isoflavone exposure, all clinical chemistry values remained within the normal range.” The truth is also that phytoestrogens found in tofu are much weaker and that they only have a modest impact on estrogen and generally won’t affect your hormones to a noticeable level. Unless you’re stuck on a tofu island and pounding down tofu to keep alive (in which case you probably have bigger problems), it’s essentially improbable that you’ll feel any adverse effects from tofu alone. 

The only extremely isolated instances in which tofu consumption might actually affect your health are related to women who have had breast cancer, and even then, the risks are unproven. One study even states, “for women in Western countries, pre- or post-menopausal, there is no evidence to suggest an association between intake of soy isoflavone and breast cancer.” 
The various soy myths that have been overblown and popularized might have more to do with the hesitations that follow when a foreign food is introduced into the greater public palette.

The potential benefits of eating tofu far outweigh any of the minute potential risks: From its touted effects on lowering LDL cholesterol levels and hormone-related cancers, to its ability to improve bone mineral density, to its support in reducing the effects of menopause, tofu is unrivaled in its benefits to cost ratio. 

What is tofu? Guide to tofu: Benefits, Soy Myths, Controversy

Is it okay to eat tofu every day?

It’s perfectly healthy to eat tofu every day. Just look at the myriad vegetarian and vegan communities that have been doing — with positive effects — for decades. Not to mention the many Asian culinary traditions that regularly include the ingredient in their dishes. 

Adding tofu into your diet: 6 tofu recipes to try out

What’s the point of a good-for-you ingredient if it tastes bland and boring? Luckily, that’s not the case for tofu. To incorporate tofu into your diet, try any one of these tasty recipes and discover the adaptability of tofu.

Tofu scramble - What is tofu? Guide to tofu: Benefits, Soy Myths, Controversy

Tofu Breakfast Scramble

Tofu is great as an egg substitute — like in this egg scramble. To get this recipe right, all you need is a firm block of tofu that you can crumble into small, solid pieces. Combine with spices, salt, and importantly, nutritional yeast, and you’ve got a savory breakfast plate of vegan scrambled “eggs.” Just like you might with any other scrambled egg dish, you can also layer the dish by introducing chopped vegetables, herbs, and eating them with various sauces.

Nashville hot tofu - What is tofu? Guide to tofu: Benefits, Soy Myths, Controversy

Nashville Hot Tofu Nuggets

This recipe is perfect, if only to teach you that pressing tofu is the gateway to a million recipes that involve crispy, chewy chunks of tofu. This hot & sweet sauce will make every tofu cube absolutely irresistible.

Blueberry tofu smoothie - What is tofu? Guide to tofu: Benefits, Soy Myths, Controversy

Blueberry Tofu smoothie

Silken tofu is amazing to have with a drizzle of soy sauce — or to blitz into a smoothie blender along with some fruit, soy milk, and honey for a perfect summer afternoon treat. The tofu will make your beverage just a bit creamier, while imparting zero off-putting savory flavor.

Tofu avocado salad - What is tofu? Guide to tofu: Benefits, Soy Myths, Controversy

Tofu and Avocado Salad 

If you weren’t convinced yet that tofu is one of the most adaptable ingredients out there, check out this tofu and avocado salad. The creaminess of avocado complements the mild flavor of tofu perfectly, and pairs well with a bed of rice or with some crunchy sliced cucumbers.

Mapo tofu - What is tofu? Guide to tofu: Benefits, Soy Myths, Controversy

Mapo Tofu

Ah, mapo tofu. Who among you who’s tried this dish doesn’t crave it at least once a month? Just me? This recipe also proves that tofu and meat don’t have to live in different categories — they also taste delicious together, especially when they’re drowning in a spicy, tongue-numbing, Szechuan peppercorn red sauce.

Chili spicy sesame zoodles with tofu - What is tofu? Guide to tofu: Benefits, Soy Myths, Controversy

Spicy Sesame Zoodles With Crispy Tofu

Soy sauce, peanut butter, sesame oil, crisped extra firm tofu combine for an easy lunch dish that you can enjoy year-round. And by the way, might I suggest you try this recipe with immi noodles for the same low-carb, yet significantly yummier result?