Today, Chinese food has travelled far beyond the borders of China to become an internationally recognised cuisine. Kung Pao Chicken and Peking Duck are dishes that people all over the world not only know by name, but by taste. Takeout boxes, though rarely seen in China, are the epitome of food to-go for many families overseas. In America, Chinese food is even the official food of Jewish Americans during the Christmas holiday ? an ironic joke, if it weren't so true.
But what's at the core of real, Chinese cuisine? Many are surprised when they arrive in China and cannot find General Tso's Sweet & Sour Chicken on a menu. More surprising to foreigners is when they find themselves liking dishes made from eggplant, sautéed leafy greens, and tofu for the first time in their lives.
Tofu is a relatively new and slightly foreign ingredient to the Western world, made popular by the rise of vegetarianism and a desire to eat healthier by western nations. But in Asia, and China specifically, tofu has been a staple for millennia. The soybean has been used in the East much like wheat has been used for breads and pastas in the West. Consumed as a bean or in milk form, and pressed into cubes as tofu, it is even used sweetened in desserts. A hearty crop, it's provided sustenance to villages and cities alike over centuries ? and perhaps most apparently seen in abundance throughout markets in China.
Tofu's ancient origins, and its arrival in the West
Although you'd be hard pressed to identify the exact "inventor" of tofu, food historians often credit the prince Liu An (179-122 BC) as the inventor of the soy product. Soybeans were a popular food, eaten as beans, early in Chinese history. Story has it, when Liu An's mother grew so old that she was unable to eat soybeans, he was deeply troubled and sought an alternative for her to taste her beloved soybean flavour. Thus, the birth of tofu.
Other historians believe that, as opposed to being willingly conjured, tofu was mistakenly created when soymilk was accidentally mixed with sea salts, producing a chemical reaction that resulted in soy curds, and thus, tofu ? a culinary mishap that ranks among the likes of equally accidental, yet brilliant, beer and cheese.
Regardless of who and how tofu was invented, all sources seem to agree that China is its birthplace. The soy staple slowly spread to Korea and Japan in the first millennium, thanks to the rise of Buddhism. Tofu provided a main source of nutritional sustenance for an otherwise protein-less vegetarian diet that the religion demanded. Later on, the immigration of Chinese into other Asian countries such as Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and elsewhere, also saw the migration of tofu and the mingling with local ingredients from those nations.
Tofu only made its way into the Western world as recently as the 20th century (as did sushi). It was first introduced and popularised for its nutritional advantages. High in protein, low in calories and zero cholesterol, it was the perfect anecdote for a Western diet prolific with red meat and potatoes. As America and Europe became increasingly aware of health issues, the sale of tofu began to rise as well.
A tofu for every use: classifying the modern tofu family
Today, packaged tofu is sold in virtually every supermarket across the U.S., and most specialty health food stores in nations across the world. The main families of tofu sold in the US and Europe today are packaged, firm or silken options. Firm tofu is also credited to be Chinese tofu, which can hold up to the sautés and stir-fries of Chinese cuisine. Soft (or silken) tofu is Japanese tofu, meant to be consumed as part of the more delicate preparations of Japanese cuisine. Unrefrigerated packaged brands can last months in the cupboard. Refrigerated tofu, once opened, can last up to one week, if the tofu is kept stored in airtight containers floating in water that is changed daily.
But there are many other families of tofu we see abroad that aren't seen back at home ? smoked tofu, marinated tofu, fermented tofu, tofu skin, deep fried tofu puffs, dried tofu- the list goes on. Tofu has proven to be one of the most versatile ingredients in the Chinese kitchen. Here in China, it is found not only in every supermarket, but sold on pallets and from crates at every wet market in every neighbourhood. Its abundant availability made me wonder two things. One: at around 5 RMB a cube (or less) in China, how much would it cost to make it at home? And two: if it's sold everywhere, it must be somewhat easy to make, and by that reasoning it would be easy to make at home. Which led me to only one project: Make tofu at home.
DIY: make your own tofu
After an extensive bout of online tofu research, I found that tofu was a simple product of fresh soy milk, separated into curds and whey, and then pressed. The magic ingredient that would produce curds in the "milk" of the soybean extract was called the coagulant, a crucial part of all tofu-making processes. The coagulant used in traditional tofu making is a Japanese ingredient called nigari, a concentration of various salts that remain after the crystallisation of salts extracted from seawater. However, as an alternative, rather than the more specialised nigari, Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate), fresh lemon juice, or apple cider vinegar can also be used to the same effect. The variations in the results are seen mainly in the texture of the tofu, and only slightly affect the taste. Many home tofu makers (as many as are out there in the world) profess to trying a variety of coagulants to find their own favourite.
I settled on one recipe that I found online for my foray into tofu making ? in my opinion the most thorough, tested, and of course, with as many step-by-step pictures as possible. The first step was to procure soybeans, which I was able to do without any problems here in China ? a rarity in my home cooking experiences abroad. After soaking the beans overnight and waking to their plump soybean glory the next morning, I got busy boiling, grinding, cooking and straining the soybeans. Fresh soy milk, as easy as that. I was almost tempted to stop there and call it a day.
Pressing forward, however, I followed instructions carefully and put my soy milk back on the stove, adding the coagulant (in my case, the apple cider vinegar that was already in my cabinets), and stirring as advised. As expected, a pot full of steaming soy milk soon separated into small curds and whey. The curds were spooned into my own homemade tofu press ? a rectangular plastic Tupperware container with holes punched throughout the bottoms and sides, lined with cheesecloth. With the curds weighted down with a bevy of canned ingredients, I let time do its job.
A short and surprising 15 minutes later, I checked on my result. There it was: the curds had compacted into one small rectangular form. Homemade tofu, firmer than I had imagined, smaller than I would have liked, and a bit more crumbly than I would have preferred, but nevertheless it was tofu! In total, it took no more than an hour of my weekend and not a huge chunk of my wallet ? just the small purchase of a couple cups of soybeans. The tofu will most likely go in a miso soup later in the week, but upon perfection of the recipe I will use future batches as I see fit (because now that I have lived in China for all this time, I know how versatile and tasty it can be).