Tofu is a hugely popular soy-based food which is often used as a meat replacement in vegan and vegetarian dishes. But what is tofu? Is it healthy? How do you make it? Where does it come from? Totally Vegan Buzz brings you the definitive guide to tofu.
Tofu, also known as bean curd or soybean curd, is a popular food made of soy. It is high in plant-based proteins and, because of its ability to absorb flavours, it has earned a prominent spot as a meat replacement for vegetarians and vegans.
Tofu has been a staple ingredient in Asian cuisine for hundreds of years and can be cooked in a variety of ways to change its texture – from smooth and silky to crispy and crunchy. It is used across the globe as a high protein, low calorie nutritious food in a wide variety of dishes.
The word ‘tofu’ originates from the Japanese word tōfu, which is borrowed from Chinese equivalent ‘doufu’, meaning curdled or fermented beans. The first documented use of the word ‘towfu’ was in a letter from merchant James Flint to scientist Benjamin Franklin dated 1770.
Tofu-making dates back 2000 years in China, later spreading to Japan and then to South-east Asia beyond. Different regions feature variations in methods of creating, texture, flavor and usage in dishes.
Because of tofu’s health benefits, versatility and ability to take on flavours, tofu has become a vegetarian and vegan staple. The global tofu market is predicted to grow 3.8% from 2017-2022.
Tofu is available in a wide variety of types and flavors, which separate into two main categories – fresh tofu and processed tofu.
Fresh tofu is usually sold in packaging that retains water to maintain freshness and restrict bacterial growth. Fresh tofu can come in four forms – extra soft, silken, firm and extra firm. Different types have varying amounts of coagulant and lengths of time the curd is pressed during making.
- Extra soft tofu is made by adding saline water or sea water to soy milk, to curdle. The curd remains loose and very soft
- Soft tofu, also known as silken tofu, is made by coagulating soy milk without curdling
- Silken tofu has a very high moisture content as it is neither drained nor pressed
- Firm tofu is drained and pressed, but it retains a high moisture content. The outer skin retains the pattern of muslin cloth used to drain and press
- Extra firm tofu is even more firm, sometimes rubbery and has an even lower water content
Processed tofu has a longer shelf life, and some varieties do not need refrigeration. Processed tofu can be fermented or frozen.
Sprouted tofu is tofu made from soy sprouts in place of soy. The soybeans are sprouted for a period of two to three days to grow a white tail-like sprout. Sprouted tofu is considered to be more nutritious and easy to digest.
Tofu-making is similar to making cheese. First, soybeans are soaked overnight to allow them to swell. They are then drained and blended with some water to form soy milk.
The freshly prepared milk is boiled to make the beans easier to digest. This liquid is then strained through a cheesecloth.
This clear soy milk is boiled and a coagulant such as lemon juice, vinegar or salt is added to curdle. Curdling gives us two distinct by-products – curd and liquid whey. The mixture is left to cool, after which the curd is collected in a container with a few holes below to drain whey and mould into shape.
The curd can be gently pressed to allow the whey to drain and curd to form into a block. This block is placed in cold water to form a firm texture.
Taste of tofu
Tofu has a bland taste in its natural form. However, it absorbs flavours of sauces and spices very easily. It is versatile meat replacement for many vegetarian and vegan dishes.
Tofu vs Tempeh
Even though the base ingredient is the same, tofu is distinct from tempeh in terms of texture, flavours, nutritional value and the process of making.
Need to know all about tempeh? Read our Ultimate Guide To Tempeh.
Health benefits of tofu
Tofu is a nutritional food packed with proteins, iron, calcium, vitamin B1 and minerals. Made mainly from soybeans, tofu is believed to provide almost the same health benefits as soy. According to research, it reduces risk of heart diseases and breast and prostate cancer. It is also considered good for skin health and alleviating symptoms of depression. Tofu contains isoflavones – a group of chemicals found on plant-based foods which help in reducing the risk of breast cancer.
Can tofu have any negative impact on my health?
If you are allergic to legumes or soy, you shouldn’t eat tofu, as soy is the main ingredient. If you experience any allergic reactions as a result of eating a tofu-based dish, you should eliminate it from your diet.
Tofu – gluten free or not?
Regular plain tofu is gluten free as it is made from soybeans, water and coagulating agents. However, some processed varieties have other ingredients and may contain gluten.
Buying ready-made tofu
Tofu is available in various health food stores and online. Popular brands include Trader Joe’s, Mori nu and Lord of Tofu.
Tofu in cooking
Since tofu has a very mild flavour and smell, and is used to soak up flavours in a variety of sweet and savoury dishes. Tofu is often marinated to bring out the best of flavours. It is used to make dishes such as stir-fries, chilli and tacos.
Do you have any questions about tofu? Ask us in the comments section below!
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