Japanese American Traditions

Tofu: The Soy Wonder

It’s a superstar. A pop culture icon. And recently, a new symbol of environmentally responsible living.

It’s a white block of bean curd.

From its humble origins in ancient Asia, tofu has come a long way. Once the butt of health food jokes, tofu is being redefined as one of today’s most relevant foods.

Historical accounts vary, but scholars seem to agree that tofu was probably invented in China about 2,000 years ago, sometime during the Han dynasty, and then later was introduced into Japan and other parts of Asia. Today, it is typically offered in three general forms: (1) soft or “silken” tofu, which has a custard-like consistency; (2) firm tofu, which still has a high water content but is thick enough to be picked up with chopsticks; and (3) Western firm or “dried” tofu, which has a somewhat rubbery texture.

Featured in an increasing variety of pan-ethnic concoctions sold by major retail chains such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, tofu is becoming more pervasive than ever. The mild flavor, variety of textures, and porous quality of tofu allows it to absorb flavors from other foods, making it a versatile ingredient. Celebrity cooks such as Wolfgang Puck and Martha Stewart have produced tofu-based recipes, and even the venerable, long-running American cookbook series, Joy of Cooking, features tofu. Silken tofu has become a common substitute for yogurt in fruit smoothies—creamy, milkshake-like drinks made with fruit pulp.

Long praised for its nutritional qualities, tofu is a source of protein, calcium, and iron, depending on the variety of tofu and how it is manufactured. It has no cholesterol, and it has fewer calories than comparable quantities of meat. Soy has antioxidant properties and is often mentioned alongside such foods as red wine, green tea, and olive oil in promoting vascular health. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, diets that are low in saturated fat and cholesterol and that include soy protein may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

But beyond its culinary and nutritional value, tofu is riding a wave of Japanese influences on modern popular culture. The product has joined anime, karaoke, and the sushi bar in gaining wide acceptance with younger generations—inspiring tofu-themed toys, clothes, and greeting cards.

In Los Angeles, a much-loved Asian American comedy improv group, Cold Tofu, pays humorous homage to the food it in its name.

On a more serious note, the increasing public awareness of environmental concerns has also sparked interest in tofu as a “green” food. Nutritionally one of the closest protein substitutes for meat, tofu represents a possible option for consumers who wish to help the planet. Recent studies have suggested that the practice of growing animals, rather than plants, for food is less environmentally sustainable because it may consume more energy and produce higher amounts of pollution.

As the many discussions and debates about the ultimate benefits of tofu rage on, one thing remains certain: the white block of bean curd is enjoying fascinating new attention.

A slogan used for the L.A. Tofu Festival last year perhaps says it all.

“It’s hip to be square.”

April 2008








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