Tofu History

Very little is known about the exact historic origins of tofu and its method of production. While there are many theories regarding tofu’s origins, historical information is scarce enough as to relegate the status of most theories to either speculation or legend. Like the origins of cheese and butter, the exact origin of tofu production may never be known or proven.

What is known is that tofu production is an ancient technique. Tofu was widely consumed in ancient China, and techniques for its production and preparation were eventually spread to many other parts of Asia.

Three theories of origin

The most commonly held of the three theories of tofu’s origin maintains that tofu was invented in Northern China around 164 BC by Lord Liu An, a prince during the Han Dynasty. Although this is possible, the paucity of concrete information about this period makes it difficult to conclusively determine whether or not Liu An invented the method for making tofu. Furthermore, in Chinese history, important inventions were often attributed to important leaders and figures of the time.

Another theory states that the production method for tofu was discovered accidentally when a slurry of boiled, ground soybeans was mixed with impure sea salt. Such sea salt would likely have contained calcium and magnesium salts, allowing the soy mixture to curdle and produce a tofu-like gel.1 This may have possibly been the way that tofu was discovered, since soy milk has been eaten as a savory soup in ancient as well as modern times. Despite its technical plausibility, there is little evidence to prove or disprove that tofu production originated in this way.

The last group of theories maintains that the ancient Chinese learned the method for the curdling of soy milk by emulating the milk curdling techniques of the Mongolians or East Indians. For, despite their advancement, no technology or knowledge of culturing and processing milk products existed within ancient Chinese society. The primary evidence for this theory lies with the etymological similarity between the Chinese term for Mongolian fermented milk (rufu, which literally means “milk spoiled”) and the term doufu or tofu. Although intriguing and possible, there is no evidence to substantiate this theory beyond the point of academic speculation.

Established history of tofu

Although its development likely preceded Liu An, tofu is known to have been a commonly produced and consumed food item in China by the 2nd century BC. Although the varieties of tofu produced in ancient times may not have been identical to those of today, descriptions from writings and poetry of the Song and Yuan Dynasty show that the production technique for tofu had already been standardized by then, to the extent that they would be similar to tofu of contemporary times.

Tofu and its production technique were subsequently introduced into Japan in the Nara period (late eighth century) as well as other parts of East Asia. This spread likely coincided with the spread of Buddhism as it is an important source of proteins in the religion’s vegetarian diet. Since then, tofu has become a staple in many countries, including Vietnam, Thailand, and Korea, with subtle regional variations in production methods, texture, flavour, and usage.

Tofu was not well known to most Westerners before the middle of the 20th century. However, with increased cultural contact and an interest in vegetarianism, tofu has become a more familiar product to Westerners.

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3 Comments

  1. eliza said,

    November 30, 2008 at 3:25 pm

    very fantastic information! did you know that the tofu article in Wikipedia.com completely copied your information on the origin of tofu, word to word?!
    u shud report this!

  2. Joi Caplen said,

    April 17, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    Have youi tried the TofuXpress? It totally gets the water out of your tofu and then the tofu absorbs flavors much better. I also use it for spinach and eggplant. I’ve pressed paneer chesse and have made greek yogurt. There’s nothing like it. Check it out at TofuXpress.com
    Joi

  3. April 22, 2013 at 10:29 am

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