Whilst many people think that soya products are relatively new, Tofu which originated in China, is believed to have been discovered by accident during the Han dynasty some 2000 years ago, and then its later spread across Asia and globally may have coincided with the spread of Buddhism, since Buddhists found tofu to be a useful source of protein and a versatile food.
Tofu is made by ‘curdling’ the soya milk, to create curds which can then be strained to form tofu blocks. It is a pretty straightforward but time consuming process, where the tofu block needs to be put under pressure to squeeze out excess fluid.
Soya milk is also known to be produced and bottled commercially since the 1920s, when a few companies started manufacturing it in China.
Tofu comes in a staggering variety of styles, although most of these are unavailable across the world and so we would have to visit China to be able to experience a fuller range of options which include:
Silken tofu, also known as Japanese-style tofu, is silky, creamy and has the highest water content. It has the consistency of a thick yogurt and is great for desserts.
This is firmed than silken but still soft and can absorb the flavour of dishes so goes well in stir fry and sauces. It also makes a great tofu scramble with veggies.
Firm Block, Extra-firm or Super-firm
Widely available in blocks, it is compacted and easy to slice. It can be pan-fried, stir-fried, deep-fried, put in a curries etc and can absorb flavours well. Extra-firm tofu has less water than firm tofu, which you notice in the difference in texture. It can be used in the same way as firm, but it wont absorb flavours so well. And super-film is the next level, making a great ‘meat substitute’.
Seasoned or smoked tofu
Tofu can be bought pre-seasoned in a range of flavours or smoked, so its ready to go in your own dishes.
Tofu can be pickled in a mixture of salt, rice wine and water to ferment it, which will give it a umami flavour – a savoury strong flavour and goes well in cooking.
When heating soya milk, a skin forms on the surface of the liquid. Fresh tofu skins are not widely available, but dried skins are in Asian food shops. These skins are similar to filo pastry and can be marinated then pan-fried, or filled and deep-fried like spring rolls.
These are sun-dried, rolled tofu skins. Tofu sticks are great to add to soups or broths.
Fried tofu or tofu pockets
These slices of tofu are first firmly pressed and then deep-fried. They are soft and sponge-like and quickly soak up marinades and sauces. Before use they may need to be soaked in boiling water to allow then to puff so you can cut them open.
These tofu balls are frozen first and then deep-fried. They are soft and sponge-like and so ideal for quickly soaking up marinades and sauces. Tofu puffs are already cooked and so just need to be fully heated for serving, either served plain or with saucy dips, or ideal to top a curry.
Whichever way you try tofu, if you haven’t found one you like yet – then I encourage you to try another style! There are so many varieties and yet many people who just try the regular block tofu may say “its too bland or tasteless”. I suggest that there is a tofu that almost everyone will love – you just need to keep an open mind!
What is your favourite tofu?