What Exactly is Tofu?

Tofu plate

Ever wondered what exactly tofu is? I’ve eaten it on several occasions, but for a long time I never knew exactly what it is, what’s in it, or how it’s made.

Tofu is made of coagulated soy milk which has been pressed to create soft white blocks. In its coagulated stage, it resembles cottage cheese.

Kinds of Tofu

There are two main kinds of tofu, silken/soft (also called “Japanese style”) and firm/regular.

Silken tofu is suited to making dips and spreads and will fall apart if not handled carefully, whereas firm tofu is used when making a dish that needs to retain its shape. Silken tofu is often packaged in foil and requires no refrigeration, whereas firm tofu is packaged in a plastic container and located in the refrigerated or produce section. Another form of tofu is called Chinese “dry tofu”. Dry tofu is actually just an extra firm tofu made by pressing more liquid out than usual, and has not really been dried at all. It is occasionally sliced thin and shredded to form what looks like noodles, and is often served in stir fry.

Other Types

For true fans of tofu, you can try one or both varieties of fermented tofu: pickled or stinky. Pickled tofu is allowed to air dry beneath hay, where it slowly ferments. It is then soaked in vinegar, Chinese wine, or salt water. Stinky tofu, however, is fermented in a fish/vegetable brine and is said to have the aroma of rot and/or sewage. This form of tofu is only truly appreciated by aficionados, who praise its texture and aroma.

Tofu, sometimes called “soybean curd”, is believed to have originated in China over 2,000 years ago. The earliest piece of tofu evidence in the Orient is presented on a Chinese mural incised on a slab of stone. The oldest written evidence of tofu is in the form of a Chinese poem by Su Ping entitled “Ode to Tofu”, dating roughly 1500 AD.

As an entirely plant-based food, tofu is the ideal cuisine for vegetarians and vegans alike. It can be further processed with additional flavorings and added ingredients. Tofu meatballs, for example, are delicious if you can get past the strange texture. Tofu is available in nearly all health food stores in the United States and can be used to create a surprisingly wide variety of dishes, from meat alternatives to tofu cheesecake. Tofu can essentially be made into anything you like because plain tofu has very little smell or flavor. An added perk is that tofu is very easy for your body to digest.

The nutritional value of tofu is outstanding. It is one of very few foods that contains all eight essential amino acids. It’s also a very good source of protein, calcium and iron and contains no cholesterol or animal fats. It’s low on sodium as well as calories.

tofu nutrition facts

Today, tofu has become so popular and synonymous with healthy living that Los Angeles hosts an annual Tofu Festival each year. The festival is centered around creating fabulous tofu dishes, and there is even a tofu-eating contest.