It’s almost difficult to imagine a time when we didn’t see a large selection of boxed tofu lined up in the refrigerated section of many American supermarkets. But it was only the past twenty years that food establishments worldwide have embraced tofu’s culinary versatility due to the rise in vegetarian and vegan lifestyles as well as medically-necessitated food substitutions. Nowadays, you not only can purchase assorted forms of tofu – ”plain, pre-seasoned, diced, sliced or marinated – ”but there are many tofu-based products available, from tofu burgers or corn dogs to tofu ice cream.
If you think it’s just a bland, over-hyped ingredient for health nuts, then we encourage you to give this cheese-like food another chance. The uses for tofu are limited only by a chef’s imagination and tofu is known for its ability to absorb other flavors it is paired with – ”sweet or savory. It’s a nutritious food that can be incorporated into any meal or snack with minimal preparation, yet yields delicious (and guilt-free) results. From a health standpoint, tofu is an easily digestible protein, low in fat and sodium, and a good source of B vitamins and calcium.
Our recipe for this month is a refreshing Silkenberry Smoothie. Rich and creamy, it’s a dessert beverage that will make you a tofu convert. You’ll find that the berries are at the forefront of flavor with nuances of the slightly sweet, creamy tofu taste lingering on the tongue.
What it is
Tofu is a soft cheese-like food made by curdling soy milk with a coagulant*. The curds are pressed into rectangular blocks, similar to the way cheese is made with milk curds. It is produced in a variety of textures – ”soft, firm, and extra-firm – ”that serve different cooking purposes.
The history of tofu goes back more than 2,000 years to the Han Dynasty of China. Archaeologists deduce that two staples of Chinese cuisine – ”soy milk and tofu – ”were first prepared in Northern China in the second century B.C.
Legend has it that tofu was created by accident when a Chinese chef added nigari, a natural ocean water mineral (a seaweed extract now used as a coagulant to make tofu out of soy milk), to flavor a soybean puree. Instead of flavored soybeans, he ended up with the bean curd that we now call tofu.
It was also said that the soy industry mostly began with small family-run businesses that traveled door-to-door selling tofu or soymilk within nearby neighborhoods, much like the local milk deliveries found in the U.S. that started in the1940s.
Tofu started to get popular throughout Asia with the development of Buddhism. In Japan, Kento priests who went to China to study Buddhism brought home tofu recipes around 750 A.D. It was eaten as part of a vegetarian diet for priests and often served as an offering at an altar. Tofu gradually became more sought-after among the Japanese nobility and the samurai class, who needed healthy diets for their rigorous training.
In the 1800s, with an influx of Chinese immigrants to northern California, tofu companies sprang up when it appeared that there was a tofu niche to fill. The first tofu factory in America was founded in 1878 in San Francisco by Wo Sing & Co., to meet the needs of the burgeoning Chinese population. They were followed by Hirata & Co. (1895) in Sacramento, California, the earliest known Japanese-American company and Quong Hop & Co. (1896), the oldest existing tofu maker in America today. Tofu wasn’t packaged and offered in U.S. supermarkets until 1958.
In the 1800s, with an influx of Chinese immigrants to northern California, tofu companies sprang up when it appeared that there was a tofu niche to fill.
Tofu is made by soaking, pulverizing, and cooking soybeans in a soy milk maker; a coagulant is then added. The soymilk solidifies into large blocks of tofu that are cut into smaller blocks. You can easily make fresh tofu at home with all the necessary tools by making soy milk in a soy milk maker and adding a coagulant.
Tofu is perishable and needs to be kept in water, which must be changed daily. Silken tofu does not need to be kept in water, but does require refrigeration.
In 1985, Mori-Nu, a California-based silken tofu manufacturer, invented an aseptic system that packages bacteria in cardboard containers. The tofu can be stored without refrigeration for up to a year if unopened, while remaining light, creamy, and fresh-tasting (it must be refrigerated after opening).
There are two types of tofu: traditional Chinese-style tofu and Japanese-style silken tofu. Both styles are available in the same degrees of firmness or texture, a function of the water retained in the tofu: soft, firm, extra firm, and sometimes super firm. Though Chinese-style and Japanese-style tofu are available in the same textures, Japanese-style silken tofu, no matter its firmness, is much more delicate and susceptible to breaking apart. Chinese-style tofu, or doufu, is made the traditional way and tends to be spongier because the soymilk-soybean mixture is not drained before it solidifies. Japanese tofu, or kinugoshi, is known as “silken tofu” because of its fine, custard-like texture, as if “strained through silk.” Made from soymilk that is filtered before any coagulant is added, the protein for Japanese tofu is not hardened into curds, so the soymilk and whey remain together.
Also available are “lite” tofu, which contains less calories and fat than normal tofu, and “organic” tofu, which is produced by FDA organic standards.
Each type of tofu has a different purpose in cooking, and there are numerous cookbooks dedicated to the topic. What you plan to make will dictate the kind of tofu you need to purchase. Silken tofu that melts in a stir-fry or a chunky tofu mousse won’t impress guests. Here is a mini tofu glossary:
Silken tofu is very fine and smooth in texture. Think of it as flan or custard that melts in your mouth. It is available in extra firm, firm and soft, but is creamier and more delicate than any other tofu. It can be used as traditional tofu, but must be handled much more carefully, as it can fall apart easily when cooking. It is ideal for recipes that call for blending, like sauces, sweets like puddings, and beverages (smoothies and shakes). It is used to make low-fat versions of yogurt, sour cream, and mayonnaise. Many spicy Korean stews use this type of tofu as well as it soaks up other flavors very well.
Soft tofu is much more pliable and can crumble easily with the consistency of perfectly cooked pasta. It is creamy like pudding, but firm like Jell-O®, which works well as a sauce or salad dressing. This tofu can reduce or substitute the amount of egg used in a recipe or replace sour cream or yogurt. It is lower in both protein and fat, and can be mashed, scrambled, or blended.
Firm tofu maintains its shape, but is not as thick in consistency as Extra Firm tofu. It is a good substitute for dairy products like cheese. It’s delicious in omelets, as fillings for dumplings, or can be a low-carb replacement for pasta or rice.
Extra-Firm tofu is dense and contains the least water. It holds its shape and has a meaty texture that has the most protein and fat content. It keeps its texture very well even after it is sliced, diced and even halved and stuffed with a filling. It serves as a hearty main entrÃ©e when cooked in casseroles, stir-fries, stews, or as fried appetizers (e.g. Stinky Tofu) as it is a substantial protein substitute in place of meat.
If you are buying fresh tofu, make sure that the tofu blocks do not have any dried-out splotches and are immersed in clean water. Many boxed tofu brands are also very delicious that have an expiration date to look out for.
-Whether fresh or opened from a box, tofu can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week if submerged in water, which must be changed everyday to ensure freshness.
-If tofu is left out for a few hours, moisten a paper towel and cover the block to preserve moisture.
-If you can’t eat what you have opened, feel free to freeze it.
Eat More Tofu!
Whether you try your own hand in preparation, eat the tofu dishes at Asian restaurants, or substitute tofu dressing for your next salad, it pays to add more tofu to your diet. Here’s why:
Wealth of health benefits:
The American Heart Association states that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. In October 1999, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) announced that 25 grams of soy protein a day helps fight coronary heart disease. The FDA allows the health claim labels on foods that contain at least 6.25 grams of soy protein per serving and are low in fat, cholesterol and sodium. (Four ounces of firm tofu generally contain about 13 grams of soy protein.) Research reviewed by the FDA shows that soy protein, when included in a low-fat and low-cholesterol diet, lowers total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, without adversely effecting high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels. Clinical studies have also shown that consumption of soy compared to other protein, such as those from milk or meat, lowers total and LDL cholesterol.
Tests conducted by universities and health researchers continue to show the positive correlation between eating soy-based foods and reducing the risk of clogged arteries, heart disease, and even diabetes. More recent studies have explored the sub-nutrients of soy and tofu, like soy isoflavones can reduce chances of cancer. In China and Japan, where tofu is regularly eaten, statistics show that people in those countries suffer only 10 percent of the cancer and heart disease that Americans do.
Plenty of protein:
Tofu is an accessible and inexpensive source of protein. It also contains 9 essential amino acids and is free of saturated fat or cholesterol.
Thanks to estrogen- and calcium-rich soy, Asian women don’t suffer the side effects of menopause to the degree that Western women do, including hot flashes and osteoporosis.
Tofu has about 15 to 23 calories an ounce, depending on the texture and density. The more firm, more dense and less water it is, the more calories per ounce. The next closest protein values, white fish like haddock and flounder are 31-33 calories and ounce, and skinless white meat chicken is 40 calories an ounce.
The manufacturing process of tofu removes the fibers from soy beans, making it a stomach-friendly food. If you have an upset stomach or have trouble consuming solid foods for various reasons, tofu provides nutrition without compounding the problem.
Recipe: Silkenberry Smoothie
Sweet, but not too sweet, the smoothie recipe below is an excellent way to start off the morning or serves as post work-out energy booster. Add a bit more silken tofu to the recipe to make it into a tangy after-dinner palate cleanser.
1 cup frozen blackberries
½ cup Vanilla soymilk
6 ounces of silken tofu
4 tablespoons of honey or simple syrup
Combine all ingredients in a blender and mix until smooth. For a more liquid-like consistency, pour more Vanilla soymilk until desired viscosity. We recommend that you try out the recipe and add more of what you like afterwards to customize it to your tastes. The silken tofu base is sure to flatter any fruit flavors combined with it. Mango, pineapple and cranberries were also fantastic with the recipe.
To make a silky, pudding-like fruit soup, add 6 more ounces of silken tofu, 1 more cup of berries and cut back on ¼ cup of the Vanilla soymilk. When ready to serve, include whole berries in the soup for extra texture and berry flavor.
* A substance that produces coagulation, including: calcium sulfate (gypsum), Nigari (magnesium chloride with other salts and trace elements), or gluconolactone.