Firm Tofu – An American Invention

While tofu has been consumed in Asia for centuries, nobody knows exactly when tofu was first brought to America. Tofu started making an inroad into the US in the 1800s through the early 1900s when masses of Chinese came to work as coolies and railroad builders. However, it was not until the 1970s that tofu gained popularity outside of the Asian community here.

Tofu was truly introduced to the American public in the early 1970s by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, through their seminal book, The Book of Tofu. The publication of this book coincided with the rise of the Green Revolution, which led many Americans to adopt a plant-based diet. Tofu became the “poster” food — a meat substitute that is healthier and kinder to the environment.

Because tofu is frequently referred to as a meat substitute, people new to tofu expected tofu’s texture to be similar to that of meat and were generally quite surprised when they came across tofu in Asian grocery stores. What they encountered was a jiggly, jello-like white block so soft that it would fall through their BBQ! And they absolutely did not know what to do with it!

As such, tofu failed the “meat substitute” test. So, what do we do as Americans? We innovate!
The resulting product was a “firm” tofu that can withstand the grill, the frying pan and the smoker. The solution was simple enough; wrap the soft tofu in a paper towel and press the water out of it with some weight, a can or two of beans are typically recommended. If you peruse through any tofu cookbook written between 1975 and1990, chances are that you will find instructions to do just that in the first chapter of the book.
Little did we know that in creating the firm tofu, we also created a tofu that is less tasty and much harder to flavor!

Why? Here is where I wear my “Alton Brown hat” and explain the science of tofu. Unlike meat, tofu’s matrix of protein and water do not bind the same way as meat protein. This rather weak matrix forces tofu to leach water constantly. A block of tofu gets firmer with time as it pushes water out. Hence, tofu does not absorb flavors like meat does!

But, firm tofu is here to stay, and we want to help you learn how to use it to make great dishes. Here are some tips for choosing and working with firm tofu.
Tip 1 – Look for tofu that is medium firm and has a high protein level (Hodo tofu has 17g of protein per serving, the highest in the industry at twice the average market brand).
Tip 2 – Slice tofu into thin strips to expose as much surface area as possible when cooking. The surface area is where flavors stick!
Tip 3 – Fry firm tofu to get a sponge-like texture that will absorb sauce easily. We make our nuggets by frying tofu and braising it in 5-spice and curry sauces.
Tip 4 – Crumble firm tofu to make scrambles, or salads (like our v-EGG-an salad), or the braised tofu Sofritas at Chipotle!

Until the next blog….happy tofu cooking!

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