Tofu is a highly versatile protein source that has been used in Asian cooking for over 2,000 years. In more recent years it has been touted as a meat replacement by those choosing to live a vegan, vegetarian, or simply healthier lifestyle.
Despite Americans eating over $350 million worth of tofu a year, we don’t, as a group, know that much about it. If you have asked yourself questions like, why is tofu called tofu or how did tofu get its name, you are reading the right article.
In this piece, we answer the questions:
- So why is tofu called tofu?
- Why is “bean curd” called tofu?
- How did tofu get its name?
- How was tofu made originally?
- What is “stinky tofu,” and why is it called “stinky tofu”?
- What Is “Mapo Tofu,” and why is it called “Mapo Tofu”?
Table of Contents
So why is tofu called tofu?
Tofu came to describe the various forms of bean curd sold in the west as an economic convenience.
Tōfu is a Japanese word that literally translates to soybean ferment or soybean cheese. Neither of these terms is accurate as tofu is neither a type of cheese nor fermented.
It is highly likely, though debatable, that the misnomer was due to Europeans and Americans who first visited Asia being unfamiliar with the making of tofu but very familiar with the processes that produce cheese.
The first recorded use of the term tofu in English was written in a letter by the English merchant James Flint to Benjamin Franklin in 1770.
The name became standardized on labeling in English-speaking countries in 1975 to avoid confusion in the marketplace.
Why is “bean curd” called tofu?
Bean curds are called tofu because tofu is produced by pressing bean curds into cakes. All tofu is bean curd, but not all bean curd is tofu. This is being nit-picky, though, and is from a purely technical standpoint.
How was tofu made originally?
No one is sure how tofu was made originally.
Four theories have been put forth, but except for one, they only vary in minor details. The story of the other three is that the Chinese were by accident, trade, or intentionally introduced initially to curding from either Mongolian tribes or Indians from the east.
At the time of its first recorded introduction, the Chinese raised neither goats nor cattle, so they would have been unfamiliar with the processes used to make cheeses. It is held by many that they borrowed curdling technology from their neighbors.
A slightly different theory of how tofu was created is more entertaining. It was pure dumb luck.
In this version of the tale, a Chinese peasant seasoned a bowl of boiled soybean soup using impure sea salt. The salt contained calcium and magnesium salts, and the soup congealed, and tofu was born.
What is “stinky tofu,” and why is it called “stinky tofu”?
Stinky tofu is a form of fermented tofu commonly served fried or boiled as a street snack in China, Indonesia, and Taiwan. Stinky tofu gets its name from the simple truth that it smells like rotten cabbage, week-old fish, or dirty socks, depending on the production method.
Stinky tofu is produced in one of two ways. One method is to take firm tofu and soak it in a brine containing rotted vegetables and shrimp. The other production method is to make tofu from fermented soy milk mixed with overaged meat and Chinese herbs.
What Is “Mapo Tofu,” and why is it called “Mapo Tofu”?
Mapo Tofu is a Chinese dish that originated in the Sichuan province. As with many Sichuan dishes, it is spicy and makes use of the doubanjiang sauce.
Traditionally it is cooked using a mix of tofu, minced beef or pork, spring onions, and Sichuan peppercorns. That is traditional. It is equally delicious recreated as a vegan dish by omitting the meat and adding dried shiitake mushrooms in its place.
Mapo Tofu’s name is in honor of its original creator, a woman named Chenshi. Supposedly she ran a small eatery, Chen Xingshen Restaurant, under the Wanfu Bridge in Chengdu with her husband during the 19th century.
Literally, Mapo Tofu means “Pockmarked old woman’s tofu.” Despite how it sounds to us today, the name is intended as a tribute. Chenshi had supposedly survived smallpox in her youth but was left disfigured.