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Japanese SilkyTofu (Kinugoshi Tofu).JPG
A block of Japanese raw silken tofu
Alternative namesBean curd
Place of origin China
Associated cuisine
Main ingredients Soy milk


The English word "tofu" comes from Japanese tōfu (豆腐). The Japanese tofu, in turn, is a borrowing of Chinese 豆腐 (Mandarin: dòufǔ; tou4-fu) 'bean curd, bean ferment'. [4] [5] [6] [7]

The earliest documentation of the word in English is in the 1704 translation of Domingo Fernández Navarrete's A Collection of Voyages and Travels, that describes how tofu was made. [8] The word towfu also appears in a 1770 letter from the English merchant James Flint to Benjamin Franklin. [9] :73 The term "bean curd(s)" for tofu has been used in the United States since at least 1840. [10] [11]


Tofu making was first recorded during the Chinese Han dynasty about 2000 years ago. [2] Chinese legend ascribes its invention to Prince Liu An (179122 BC) of Anhui province. Tofu and its production technique were introduced to Japan [12] [13] [14] during the Nara period (710794). Some scholars believe tofu arrived in Vietnam during the 10th and 11th centuries. [9] :305 It spread to other parts of Southeast Asia as well. [15] This probably coincided with the spread of Buddhism as it is an important source of protein in the vegetarian diet of East Asian Buddhism. [12] Li Shizhen, during the Ming dynasty, described a method of making tofu in the Compendium of Materia Medica . [16] Since then, tofu has become a staple in many countries, including Vietnam, Thailand, and Korea, with regional variations in production methods, texture, flavor, and usage.

Theories of origin

The most commonly held of the three theories of tofu's origin maintains that tofu was discovered by Liu An (179–122 BC), a Han dynasty prince. While plausible, the paucity of reliable sources for this period makes this difficult to conclusively determine. In Chinese history, important inventions were frequently attributed to important leaders and figures of the time. [17] In 1960, a stone mural unearthed from an Eastern Han dynasty tomb provided support for the theory of the Han origin of tofu; however some scholars maintain that tofu during the Han dynasty was rudimentary and lacked the firmness and taste for it to be considered as tofu. [18]

Another theory suggests 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 probably have contained calcium and magnesium salts, allowing the soy mixture to curdle and produce a tofu-like gel.

The last group of theories maintains that the ancient Chinese learned the method for curdling soy milk by emulating the milk curdling techniques of the Mongolians or East Indians. The primary evidence for this theory is the etymological similarity between the Chinese term rǔfǔ (乳腐), which literally means "milk curdled", used during Sui dynasty (AD 581–618), for dishes with a consistency like yogurt or soft cheese, later influenced by Mongolian milk products and methods of production, and the term dòufu (豆腐, "beans curdled" ) or tofu. Although intriguing and possible, there is no evidence to substantiate this theory beyond academic speculation. [17]

East Asia


A form of tofu may have been discovered during the Han dynasty (202 BC AD 220), but it did not become a popular food in China until the Song dynasty (960–1279). [7]

In China, tofu is traditionally used as a food offering when visiting the graves of deceased relatives. It is claimed that the spirits (or ghosts) have long lost their chins and jaws so that only tofu is soft enough for them to eat. Before refrigeration was available in China, tofu was often only sold during winter since tofu did not spoil as easily in cold weather. During the warmer months, tofu, once made, spoiled if stored for more than a day.


Illustration of a tofu seller (right) and a somen seller (left) by Tosa Mitsunobu, from the Songs of the Seventy-one Craftsmen (Qi Shi Yi Fan Zhi Ren Ge He Shichijuichi-ban Shokunin Uta-awase), a poetry anthology written around 1500 TofuSeller1500.jpg
Illustration of a tofu seller (right) and a sōmen seller (left) by Tosa Mitsunobu, from the Songs of the Seventy-one Craftsmen (七十一番職人歌合 Shichijūichi-ban Shokunin Uta-awase ), a poetry anthology written around 1500

Tofu was introduced to Japan during the Nara period (late 8th century) by Zen Buddhist monks, who initially called it "Chinese curd" (唐腐, tōfu). [7] A firm variation of tofu was introduced in Tosa Province, today's Kochi Prefecture, by a Korean doctor and prisoner of war following the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–1598). [19] [20] [21] Much of tofu's early use in East Asia was as a vegetarian substitute for meat and fish by Buddhist monks, especially those following Zen Buddhism. [7] [20]

The earliest Japanese document concerning tofu refers to the dish being served as an offering at the Kasuga Shrine in Nara in 1183. [22] The book Tofu Hyakuchin (豆腐百珍), published in 1782 of the Edo period, lists 100 recipes for cooking tofu. [23]

Southeast Asia

In Southeast Asia, tofu was introduced to the region by Chinese immigrants from Fujian province, as evidenced by many countries in Southeast Asia referring to tofu using the Min Nan Chinese word for either soft or firm tofu, or "tāu-hū" or "tāu-goan" respectively. In Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam, tofu is widely available and used in many local dishes. [ citation needed ]

Tofu is called tahu in Indonesia, and Indonesian dishes such as tahu sumbat, taugeh tahu, asinan, siomay and some curries, often add slices of tofu. Tahu goreng , tahu isi and tahu sumedang are popular fried tofu snacks. [ citation needed ]

Tofu is called tauhu in Malaysia and Singapore. Malaysian and Singaporean Indians use tofu in their cuisine, such as in Indian mee goreng , and rojak pasembor. Peranakan cuisine often uses tofu, as in Penang curry noodles and laksa . Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines are major producers of tofu and have plants in many municipalities.

Tofu in the Philippines is widely eaten as the breakfast snack tahô (soft tofu, from Philippine Hokkien 豆腐 "tāu-hū"), or as tokwa (dry, firm tofu that is usually fried, from Philippine Hokkien 豆干 "tāu-goan"), which is a staple alternative to meat in main meals and in numerous regional dishes. Tofu was introduced to the archipelago in the 10th to 13th centuries by Song dynasty Chinese mariners and merchants, along with many other foods that became staples of the Philippine diet. The use and production of tofu were first limited to urban centers with influential Chinese minorities, such as Cebu or Tondo, but quickly spread to even remote native villages and islands. [ citation needed ]


Benjamin Franklin was the first American to mention tofu, in a 1770 letter to John Bartram. [9] :73 [24] Franklin, who encountered it during a trip to London, included a few soybeans and referred to it as "cheese" from China. [25] In 1770, Franklin also corresponded with James Flint on the subject of how the Chinese converted callivances (soybeans) into tofu. Flint's writing "Towfu" in his letter is the earliest documented use of "tofu" in the English language. [9] :73 The first tofu company in the United States was established in 1878. [26] In 1908, Li Yuying, a Chinese anarchist and a vegetarian with a French degree in agriculture and biology, opened a soy factory, the Usine de la Caséo-Sojaïne. This was the world's first soy dairy and the first factory in France to manufacture and sell beancurd. [27] However, tofu was not well known to most Westerners before the middle of the 20th century. With increased cultural contact between the West and East Asia and growing interest in vegetarianism, knowledge of tofu has become widespread. Numerous types of pre-flavored tofu can be found in supermarket chains throughout the West. It is also used by many vegans and vegetarians as a source of protein. [ citation needed ]


Making tofu
Sun-dubu 5.jpg
Coagulated soy curds
Making tofu.jpg
Curds in a tofu mold

Regardless of the product or scale of the production, the production of tofu essentially consists of:

  1. The preparation of soy milk
  2. The coagulation of the soy milk to form curds (douhua)
  3. The pressing of the soybean curds to form tofu cakes

It is similar to the production of dairy cheese by coagulating the milk of dairy animals to form curds and pressing and aging the curds to form cheese. Typical tofu-making procedures are cleaning, soaking, grinding beans in water, filtering, boiling, coagulation, and pressing. [28]

Coagulation of the protein and oil (emulsion) suspended in boiled soy milk is the most important step in the production of tofu. This process is accomplished with the aid of coagulants. Coagulation depends on complex interactions. There are many variables including the variety and percentage of protein in the soybeans used, slurry cooking temperature, coagulation temperature, and other factors. [29]

Soybean proteins are mainly composed of 7S and 11S proteins. The negative surface charges on these globulins usually cause them to repel each other. Heating soy milk denatures the proteins and exposes hydrophobic groups normally oriented toward the inside of the globulin structure. Cations from coagulants bind the negatively charged groups. [30] As the net charges of the protein molecules are neutralized, attractive hydrophobic interactions dominate over repulsive electrostatic charges, and protein aggregates are formed. [31]

Two types of coagulants (salts and acids) are used commercially. [32]

Salt coagulants

Tofu tools
Tofu mould.jpg
Dubu-teul ('tofu mold') from Korea
Tofu knife.jpg
Dubu-kal ('tofu knife') from Korea
  • Calcium sulfate (gypsum) (Chinese:石膏; pinyin:shígāo) – the traditional and most widely used coagulant to produce Chinese-style tofu, it produces a tofu that is tender but slightly brittle in texture. The coagulant itself is tasteless. Also known as gypsum, calcium sulfate is quarried from geological deposits, and no chemical processing or refining is needed, making it the cheapest coagulant used in tofu production. When used in production, the coagulation reaction is slower due to its low solubility, forming a smooth, more gelatinous tofu with relatively high water content and soft texture. [28] Use of this coagulant also makes tofu that is rich in calcium. As such, many tofu manufacturers choose to use this coagulant to be able to market their tofu as a good source of dietary calcium. [ citation needed ]
  • Chloride-type nigari salts or lushui (Traditional: 鹵水, 滷水; Simplified: 卤水; Pinyin: lǔshuǐ) – Magnesium chloride and calcium chloride: Both of these salts are highly soluble in water and affect soy protein in the same way, whereas gypsum is only very slightly soluble in water and acts differently in soy protein precipitation, the basis of tofu formation. These are the coagulants used to make tofu with a smooth and tender texture. In Japan, a white powder called nigari , which consists primarily of magnesium chloride, is produced from seawater after the sodium chloride is removed and the water evaporated. Depending on its production method, nigari/Lushui may also contain small quantities of magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt), potassium chloride, calcium chloride, and trace amounts of other naturally occurring salts. Although the term nigari is derived from nigai, the Japanese word for "bitter", neither nigari nor pure magnesium chloride imparts a perceivable taste to the finished tofu. Calcium chloride is not found in seawater in significant quantities and therefore is not regarded as nigari. It is used extensively in the United States due to its flavor and low cost. [9] :73 [33] Fresh clean seawater itself can also be used as a coagulant. [34]

Acid coagulants

  • Glucono delta-lactone (GDL): A naturally occurring organic acid also used in cheesemaking, this coagulant produces a very fine textured tofu that is almost jelly-like. It is used especially for "silken" and softer tofus and confers a faint sour taste to the finished product. [35] GDL is derived from glucose and takes the form of a white powder at room temperature. Its molecular structure contains a six-membered heterocyclic ring that is hydrolyzed upon contact with water, slowly converting GDL to gluconic acid. [36] When added to soy milk, it gradually lowers the pH and causes proteins to coagulate evenly throughout the mixture, [37] forming a single, smooth gel that is free of air gaps and that resists breaking during transportation. Using GDL as a coagulant, silken tofu can be formed directly in its container, as it does not require pressing. [38] This acid coagulant is also commonly used together with calcium sulfate to give soft tofu a smooth, tender texture.
  • Other edible acids: Though they can affect the taste of the tofu more, and vary in density and texture, acids such as acetic acid (vinegar) and citric acid (such as lemon juice), can also be used to coagulate soy milk and produce tofu. [39]

Enzyme coagulants

  • Among enzymes that have been shown to produce tofu are papain, and alkaline and neutral proteases from microorganisms. Papain, moreover, has been studied as a gelling agent to produce "instant tofu" from soy protein isolate and soy glycinin (11S) protein. [40] [41]

Contemporary tofu manufacturers may choose to use one or more of these coagulants since each plays a role in producing the desired texture in the finished tofu. [35] Different textures result from different pore sizes and other microscopic features in the tofu produced using each coagulant. The coagulant mixture is dissolved in water, and the solution is then stirred into boiled soy milk until the mixture curdles into a soft gel. [32]

Coagulants are typically added at concentrations between 1.5 and 5.0 g/kg. In all coagulants consisting of calcium or magnesium salts, the positive double-bonded ions of the calcium or magnesium are responsible for the coagulation of the soy proteins which become part of the tofu, thereby enhancing its nutritional value. Only 1 part per 1000 of the tofu eaten is coagulant; most of the coagulant reacts with soy protein and is broken down into ions. The non-reactive portion dissolves in the whey and is discarded. [42]

The curds are processed differently depending on the form of tofu that is being manufactured. For soft silken tofu ( ; nèndòufu in Chinese or 絹漉し豆腐kinugoshi-dōfu in Japanese) or tofu pudding ( , dòuhuā OR 豆腐花, dòufuhuā in Chinese or おぼろ豆腐Oboro-dōfu in Japanese) the soy milk is curdled directly in the tofu's final packaging. For standard firm East Asian tofu, the soy curd is cut and strained of excess liquid using cheesecloth or muslin and then lightly pressed to produce a soft cake. Firmer tofus, such as East Asian dry tofu ( ' in Chinese or 凍み豆腐Shimi-dōfu in Japanese) or Western types of tofu, are further pressed to remove even more liquid. In Vietnam, the curd is strained and molded in a square mold, and the end product is called đậu khuôn (molded bean) or đậu phụ (one of the Vietnamese ways to pronounce the Chinese dòufu). The tofu curds are allowed to cool and become firm. The finished tofu can then be cut into pieces, flavored or further processed.[ citation needed ]

Although tartness is sometimes desired in dessert tofu, the acid used in flavoring is usually not the primary coagulant, since concentrations sufficiently high to induce coagulation negatively affect the flavor or texture of the resulting tofu. A sour taste in tofu and a slight cloudiness in its storing liquid is also usually an indication of bacterial growth and, hence, spoilage.


The whiteness of tofu is ultimately determined by the soybean variety, soybean protein composition, and degree of aggregation of the tofu gel network. The yellowish-beige color of soybeans is due to the color compounds including anthocyanin, isoflavones, and polyphenol compounds; therefore the soybean variety used will predicate the color of the final tofu product. [43] Ways to reduce the yellow color include reducing isoflavone content by changing the pH of the soy milk solution used in the production of the tofu so that the relevant compounds precipitate out and are removed during the extraction of okara. [44] The opacity of tofu gel and the off-white color typical of standard uncooked firm tofu is due to the scattering of light by the colloidal particles of the tofu. The addition of higher levels of calcium salts or a high protein content will contribute to forming a denser and more aggregated gel network which disperses more light, resulting in tofu with a whiter appearance. [45]


Tofu flavor is generally described as bland, which is the taste desired by customers in North America. A more beany flavor is preferred in East Asia. The beany or bland taste is generated during the grinding and cooking process, and either a "hot grind" or a "cold grind" can be used to influence the taste. The hot grind method reduces the beany flavor by inactivating the lipoxygenase enzyme in the soy protein that is known to generate off flavors. Eliminating these flavors makes tofu that is "bland". If a cold grind is used lipoxygenase remains and produces the aldehyde, alcohol, and ester volatile compounds that create beany notes. [42]


A wide variety of types and flavors of tofu is available in both Western and Eastern markets. Despite the range of options, tofu products can be split into two main categories: 'fresh tofu', which is produced directly from soy milk, and 'processed tofu', which is produced from fresh tofu. Tofu production also creates important by-products that are used in various cuisines.

Unpressed fresh

Unpressed fresh tofu is gelled soy milk with curd that has not been cut and pressed of its liquid. Depending on whether the soy milk is gelled with bittern (magnesium chloride) solution or a suspension of gypsum (calcium sulphate), different types of unpressed tofu are produced. Gypsum-gelled soft tofu has a smooth and gel-like texture and is commonly known as soft tofu, silken-tofu, or douhua (豆花). The bittern-gelled variety has a very soft spongy curdled texture and is known as extra-soft or sun-dubu (순두부).

Unpressed tofu is so soft that it is directly ladled out for serving or sold with its gelling container.

Extra soft

Sun-dubu (extra soft tofu) Sun-dubu.jpg
Sun-dubu (extra soft tofu)
Regional names
Tofu (Chinese characters).svg
"Tofu" in Chinese characters


  1. The Hwang Ryh Shang Company of Taiwan, a major producer of pickled tofu, mislabels this ingredient as "red date" (jujube) on the English-language list of ingredients on its product labels, although the Chinese list of ingredients on the same product lists 紅糟 (literally "red lees", i.e. red yeast rice).

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Further reading

Extra soft tofu
Korean name
Hangul 순두부
Hanja 순豆腐
Literal meaningmild tofu