What the heck is tofu anyway?

Versatile and nutritious? Or boring and tasteless? Yes, tofu is all those ... and much more.

By Mike Lewis

Tofu cubes

Photo by Andrew Lih

The New Yorker once published a cartoon of a man sitting down to dinner. His wife emerges from the kitchen, struggling with a tray bearing an enormous roast boar's head, complete with ceremonial apple in its mouth. "Oh, no," groans the husband. "Not tofu again."

That cartoon neatly sums up many people's perceptions of tofu. On the one hand, it is seen as some sort of wonder food, something that can miraculously turn itself into whatever other kind of food you want it to be. Conversely, it is also regarded as bland and boring. Paradoxically, there's some truth in both those views.

On its own, tofu is undoubtedly bland. As well as being almost tasteless, it has an unappealing appearance and a slightly unpleasant feel. It looks a bit like cheese which has lost its color, but with none of the delicious flavor or texture that a good cheese can provide.

On the other hand, tofu has a remarkable ability to absorb the flavors of whatever other ingredients it is cooked with. To demonstrate, you only have to stir-fry it for a few minutes with a handful of string beans, a chopped chili, some minced ginger and a sprinkling of soy sauce. You will get a truly wonderful combination of flavors.

Tofu is also extremely versatile. It can be baked, broiled, deep fried, shallow fried, marinated, stewed, scrambled, added to soups and casseroles, stuffed into tacos, made into dips ... the list goes on and on. We even have a recipe for tofu cheesecake (by the way, it's delicious).

But what exactly is it?

Tofu in China

Tofu being sold in Haikou, China
Photo by Anna Frodesiak

Tofu is made in much the same way as cheese, except that it is made from soya beans rather than milk. It is entirely plant-based, which means that it is an ideal food for vegans and for people who are intolerant of dairy products. Because it is prepared by separating the curds of the soya 'milk' from the whey, it is sometimes referred to as bean curds.

Tofu is Asian in origin. It has been used in China for over 2,000 years, and is still an important constituent of the Chinese and Japanese diets. The chances are that you have come across it in Chinese restaurants, although you might not have recognized it as such. Today, tofu is easily available in health food stores and larger supermarkets throughout Europe, North America and Australia - in fact, just about anwhere.

Is it good for you?

Nutrition-wise, tofu is in a league of its own. To start with, it is a complete source of protein, being one of the only food products that provide all eight essential amino acids. It contains no animal fats or cholesterol, is low on sodium, contains few calories, and is easy to digest. It is also an excellent source of iron and Vitamin B. And because calcium sulfate is used in the manufacturing process, it is a worthwhile source of calcium.

Remarkably, the USA grows two thirds of the world's production of soya beans, yet almost the entire crop is inefficiently converted to protein by feeding it to animals. An acre of soya beans converted to tofu could provide twenty times as much protein as an acre devoted to cattle production.

Practicalities

Tofu is generally sold in two varieties. The firm kind is more common, and is best for general cooking. The smoother silken version is a better choice for making into dips and spreads, although firm tofu can be used for that as well. Silken tofu is a not a good choice for frying or roasting.

Firm tofu usually comes in tubs or vacuum packs, in which it is submerged in water. When you open the pack, rinse the tofu under cold running water, then squeeze out the water and dry it with a kitchen towel.

The best way to store firm tofu is to submerge it in water in a plastic container. Keep it in the refrigerator, changing the water every day. That way, the tofu will keep for about a week. You can also freeze it. When it is defrosted, it takes on a darker color and a chunky, meaty texture.

Silken tofu is usually sold in foil packs. No special storage is needed for it - just keep it refrigerated. This sort of tofu usually has a longer shelf life than the firm variety.

Tofu is still an unfamiliar food to most western cooks, and it does take a little getting used to. But, considering the wonderful things you can use it for, it is definitely worth persevering with. You might never want to eat roast boar's head again.

March 2003

Please note: Neither Veg World nor its contributors are qualified to give medical or nutritional advice. If in doubt, always consult a suitably-qualified professional.