When Tofu Came To America...

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What do you order when you go to a Chinese restaurant?  Do you start with an appetizer of fried dumplings and then move onto General Tso’s chicken? Or do you start with deep-fried tofu and then opt for Ma Po tofu?

If it’s the latter, then you’re in the minority!  Americans, in general, are still not big consumers of tofu even though it’s been eaten in many parts of Asia for centuries. Let’s take a look at tofu and its history in the United States.

What is Tofu?

Tofu is derived from soybeans. It is made by curdling fresh soy milk, pressing it into a block, and then cooling it. This is similar to how cheese is made using cow or goat milk.

There are different types of tofu, from soft creamy silken tofu to pressed extra firm tofu. The difference is the amount of water in them. The longer the tofu is pressed, the more water is squeezed out and the tofu becomes denser and chewier. 

In addition to tofu, there are other soy products that have become familiar to Americans. Tempeh is cooked fermented soybeans that are formed into a block. It has a firm texture from the soybeans and a stronger taste than tofu. Another soy product is yuba, sometimes called tofu skin. It is the skin that forms on top of soy milk as it cooks. It is sold in both fresh and dried forms and is often used like noodles or spring roll wrappers.

Our Founding Fathers

One of the earliest references to tofu by an American is in a letter by Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States! 

In a January 1770 letter to his friend John Bartram, a well-known American botanist, Franklin mentioned the inclusion of some “Chinese Garavances”, which is presumed to be soybeans since garavance is another word for chickpea. Franklin also cites a description of a type of Chinese cheese made from soybeans called “teu-fu” by Fernandez Navarette, a Dominican friar who published accounts of his travels to China in the late 1600’s.

Franklin sent the letter and soybeans to Bartram when he was living in England.  Whether Bartram actually tried to grow soybeans and make tofu following Navarette’s description, no one knows. There is no historical evidence to indicate that he did so.

There isn’t much documentation of tofu production in the United States. However, it is very likely that by the early 1900’s, cities with large Asian populations such as San Francisco and New York had small tofu shops run by Asian immigrants within their own communities.

Slow-Growing Interest

In 1917, as part of an effort to develop new sources of protein for American soldiers during World War I, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent Chinese-born doctor Yamei Kin to China to study soybeans. 

Dr. Kin was among one of the earliest Chinese women to earn a medical degree from a U.S. college. By the time the USDA approached Dr. Kin about the research mission to China, she was already a dietitian well-known for promoting tofu as a nutritious meat alternative outside of the Asian communities. Despite the government’s research efforts, interest amongst the American public never picked up, especially after the end of World War I.

It wasn’t until the 1970’s when tofu started to become better known, amidst a surge of interest in vegetarianism, natural food, and less wasteful food sources. Many Americans incorporated meatless meals into their diet as a way to help world hunger as well as being healthier.

Today, you can buy different types of tofu in your standard large American supermarket, and the restaurant chain Chipotle successfully added braised shredded tofu – Sofritas - to its menu a few years ago.

Sources: Smithsonianmag, NY Times, thekitchn.com, soyinfocenter.com