A protein powerhouse, tofu can be seared, boiled, steamed, grilled, and fried. We'll dive into different varieties, origins, and production process.
Few foods are as misunderstood in the West as tofu. Growing up in Alabama, I rarely, if ever, saw tofu on supermarket shelves (this is changing though). Although my grandfather farmed soybeans, I had no knowledge that the bright green neat rows lining his fields contained a protein packed plant (½ cup soybeans equals a 5-ounce steak) that could be prepared in an almost magical number of ways (although these were a different variety). I’ve come to appreciate the diversity of dishes created from this remarkable little bean during the past 15 years of traveling of around China (and being schooled by Jie).
So, what is the difference between block tofu (soft, firm, extra firm), silken tofu, dried tofu, tofu sheets, and bamboo tofu? Here we will discuss tofu in all its glory and will provide links to some of our top Chinese tofu recipes.
History of Tofu
History of Tofu in Asia
Soybeans have been an important source of protein in China for over 2,000 years. Some sources say that tofu (doufu) was invented around 200 BC, but others think it was well into the first millennium. The first literary references to tofu were during the Song Dynasty (960 AD – 1279 AD), and legends say that tofu was created when a cook accidentally (how all good food is discovered!) curdled soy milk by adding unprocessed sea salt. Either way, soybeans and tofu have been an important protein source for over 1,000 years.
History of Tofu in the United States
Benjamin Franklin was the first American to document tofu after reading a book about it while in London in the 1760s. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s though that tofu was produced in the U.S. by newly arriving Chinese and Japanese immigrants. Wo Sing & Co, based in San Francisco, was the first official U.S. tofu company.
How Tofu is Made
Tofu is made with very simple ingredients - soybeans, water, and coagulant. Choices of coagulant include, gypsum, nigari, or even lemon juice or rice vinegar – choice of coagulant has a significant effect on the texture of the tofu. TO make tofu, soybeans are boiled, curdled, and then pressed. More specifically, the soybeans are soaked and then blended in a high-speed blender. Next, the liquid is poured through a cheese cloth to remove the ground/blended soybeans. The soymilk is then boiled for a few minutes. After boiling the temperature is allowed to drop and then the coagulate is added. The thickened mixture is transferred to a tofu press to form the tofu and press out the desired amount of liquid (i.e., soy whey). Voila – mouth-watering tofu!
While the process of making tofu is a bit involved, it can also be rewarding. Lucky for us though, tofu is becoming increasingly common in U.S. grocery stores, and even medium size cities have small Asian markets that carry an abundance of other varieties not common in Western stores.
Soybeans contain approximately 35%-56% protein, and they can produce 20 times as much protein per ace than pastures used for grazing cattle. Soybeans also contain important antioxidants and phytonutrients and have significant amounts of soluble and insoluble fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Types of Tofu
Block tofu is made according to the process described above, and is what's commonly found in most U.S. grocery stores. It can be bought in a variety of firmness levels – soft, firm, extra firm. Soft tofu is pressed for the least amount of time during the tofu making process and extra firm tofu is the most compact and is pressed longer to remove more liquid. The firmer the tofu the more visible the curds. In our family we prefer firm to extra firm tofu because these are the most versatile, but soft tofu has its benefits for some dishes.
Block tofu can be boiled, stir-fried, deep-fried, and baked. One of our favorite uses for block tofu is our mapo tofu recipe. We also use it in hotpot, kung pao tofu, and stir-fired with bok choy. For a quick snack, we sometimes sear slices of tofu in a hot wok and then eat it topped with our homemade chili oil - yum!
Silken tofu is also very common in U.S. grocery stores. You will find it in the refrigerated section but also in shelf stable packages on the dry goods aisle. To make Silken tofu, the liquid (soy whey) is not pressed out during the production process. Silken tofu it is coagulated in its final container since it's not pressed during production.
Unlike regular block tofu, you cannot stir-fry silken tofu, or it will turn to mush in your pan. In the U.S., many people make smoothies or dressings with silken tofu because of its smooth texture and mild flavor. In China, one of our favorite dishes made with silken tofu is called tofu flower (douhua). This dish dates to the Han Dynasty and is made by simmering the tofu gently and then adding various seasonings. It is sometimes called soybean flower, tofu flower, tofu brains, or tofu pudding. This dish can be sweet, savory, or our personal favorite, spicy! In northern china it is eaten with soy sauce, in Sichuan, unsurprisingly, it is enjoyed with chili pepper, and in the south China, it is enjoyed with sweet ginger or clear syrups.
Pressed Tofu (doufu gan)
Pressed tofu is not the typical white block of tofu (although we aren’t hating on the white block of tofu) found in most local supermarkets. Unlike the variety that is common across the U.S., pressed tofu has less water content, so it has a greater bean-to-water ratio. “Dou” means bean and “gan” means dry. Much of the pressed tofu that you will find in Chinese grocery stores comes already marinated in a variety of seasonings. One common variety of spiced pressed tofu is Chinese five-spice, which consists of cinnamon, star anise, cloves, fennel seed, and Sichuan pepper (slight variations of these 5 spices are common). You can also find smoked pressed tofu and versions with just soy sauce – any spice variety of pressed tofu is our weakness! We often make stir-fried celery with spiced pressed tofu and topped with our homemade chili oil.
Tofu Skin / Yuba (qianzhang, youpi, fuzhu, doufupi, doufu lao)
Tofu skin is referred to by various names in different regions of China, and the tofu product associated with the name is different in different regions. It is called qianzhang, youpi, fuzhu, doufupi, and doufu lao (I’m sure there are many more).
There are at least two types of tofu products that can be referred to as tofu skin (doufu pi) –youpi (literally oil skin) and Qianzhang (tofu sheets).
Tofu Bamboo (fuzhu)
Youpi, or sometimes called fuzhu (tofu bamboo), has various English names, including tofu bamboo and dried bean curd sticks. It's commonly called yuba which is a Japanese term derived from Chinese.
When soy milk is simmered during the tofu making process, a thin film forms on the surface. This thin layer is removed using a wooden dowel and then hung to dry. While still moist, the tofu skin can be bunch up to resemble what you find dried in packages at the market. The thin layer that forms on top of the soy milk consists of protein and fat from the soybeans, which is why tofu bamboo is packed with nutrients.
Tofu sheets (Qianzhang or baiye)
Tofu sheets are still referred to as tofu skin in some regions of China, which is a little confusing since tofu bamboo is also referred to as tofu skin in some regions. So, tofu skin refers to different products in different regions. If you ask for tofu skin in one region, what you receive may be different from what you would receive in a different region. Tofu sheets are sometimes referred to as 1,000 sheets. They are thicker and more textured on the outside than tofu bamboo (youpi), as a result of a different production process. Tofu sheets have an interior texture that resembles pressed tofu (doufu gan), but thinner with a slightly textured exterior.
Where to Shop for It
Block and silken tofu can be found at most major U.S. supermarkets. Spiced pressed tofu (doufu gan) can occasionally be found at Whole Foods and other upscale stores, but is usually spiced for Western tastes – chipotle spiced tofu, etc. To get authentic spiced pressed tofu and all varieties of tofu skins, it is best to find an Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.) grocery store. You do not necessarily need to live in a very large U.S. city like New York to find an Asian grocery store. When we lived in Mobile, AL we frequented a small Asian market run by a young Vietnamese couple. We called it the “Asian market” because they catered to many different Asian ethnicities – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, etc. There we could find all the tofu products that our heart desired.
The Soy Info Center has compiled a wealth of information about soy products - tofu in particular. Check out there site here if you are interested in a deep dive into all things soy and tofu.