Packed with Protein

Since designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013, the traditional cuisine of Japan, washoku, has drawn ever more attention from all corners of the globe. Of the classic foods included in washoku, it would be no exaggeration to say that it is tofu (doufu in Chinese, dubu in Korean), soft blocks of coagulated soymilk, that is THE ingredient essential to the healthy diet of the Japanese. What is it about tofu that has earned it this rather impressive title? As simple and unassuming as its appearance is, tofu provides an enormous number of health benefits. Tofu is made of soybeans, which are known as the "meat of the fields" due to their high nutritional content, and which are processed to make their protein easy to digest. As a source of high quality protein, tofu has no peer, and has for a long time been the recipient of much affection in Japan.

Origin of Tofu

While it is generally thought that tofu almost certainly originated in China, the date of origin and who developed it is unclear. It is surmised that ancient peoples, as a result of studying what would be the best way to consume the nutritious soybeans, thought first of making soymilk, and then coagulating the milk to form a tofu prototype. The modern method consists of soaking soybeans in water to soften and then grinding the softened beans with some water into a mixture called slurry. This is strained, and soy- milk is the result. A coagulant of some sort, such as nigari (a coagulant produced from seawater) is then added to the soy- milk to firm the mixture into curds.

It is said that tofu came to Japan during the Nara period (710—794) when Buddhist priests went to China as envoys, and when they returned, they brought back with them the method for making tofu. For the Buddhist priests, who were forbidden to eat the flesh of living creatures, tofu was a highly valuable source of protein. At this time, only the aristocracy (including warriors and priests) enjoyed tofu, as with many other foods at this time in history, and it wasn't until much later that tofu spread throughout the country to the general populace.

Tofu as Cuisine

After the long Warring States period (mid-15th to early 17th century) came to an end and the fractured country began a period of political, economic and social stability under the Tokugawa Shogunate (which ushered in the Edo period, 1603—1867), everyday folk now had more time and leisure to enjoy their food, and it was around now that the highly nutritious tofu became an essential part of their diet. Due to the fact that tofu was relatively easy to make, tofu shops cropped up even in the most remote mountain villages. There was a comic verse written at the time joking about how a person couldn't go two steps without seeing a liquor store, but couldn't go one step without seeing a tofu shop! In those days, there were no refrigerators, and tofu vendors would shoulder their freshly made tofu in large water-filled wooden buckets and wind their way along the streets three times a day, prior to the morning, noon and evening meals, calling out their presence. Townspeople could tell the time of day thanks to the tofu vendors, since they came everyday, regular as clockwork.

In 1792, in the middle of the Edo period, a seal engraver by the name of Sodani Gakusen, under the rather ostentatious pen name of Suikyodojinka Hitsujun, published a book of tofu recipes entitled Tofu Hyaku Chin, or 100 Tofu Delicacies, which became an instant best-seller, earning so much popularity that the author followed up with two sequels soon after. This was quite a feat when one comes to think if it, as the author had a vast knowledge of tofu's history and wrote about how touse the delicious curds in cooking in such a fascinating way—and yet, he was an artist, not a tofu maker or a cook! The book gained much acclaim not only as a source for recipes, but as a book to be read for pleasure.

It probably can be said that it was this introduction of creative cooking methods that sowed the seeds of the now extensive tofu food culture that exists in Japan by dramatically broadening the ways in which tofu could be enjoyed, such as mixing tofu with other ingredients and spices, stewing, grilling, deep frying it, etc. Up until this point, tofu had just been eaten chilled, with a few condiments (hiyayakko), or diced into miso soup.

Nutritional Benefits of Tofu

The soybeans that are the main ingredients in tofu are so rich in the proteins essential to developing the framework of the human body (internal organs, muscles, blood, etc.) that they are called the "meat of the fields." That being said, one cannot simply chow down on whole soybeans and expect to assimilate them into the body; the high amount of fibrous materials, for one, would make them extremely difficult to digest. Via the processing of soybeans into tofu, the absorption rate of the protein becomes nearly 95%. Tofu contains the anti-oxidant saponin, isoflavones, potassium, lecithin, calcium, as well as vitamins E, B1, and B2. It's lower in fat than meat, low in calories, and leaves one with a pleasant feeling of fullness. Furthermore, in clinical trials, tofu has been shown to have numerous and varied beneficial effects, such as lowering cholesterol and reducing blood pressure. Consuming diets low in saturated fats and cholesterol and eating more plant-based proteins likely has a large role in reducing the risk of heart disease, and can also help those suffering from obesity. And in 2012, the ACS (American Cancer Society) noted that some studies have shown that consuming soy products may help to lower the risk of developing certain types of cancers.

How to Cook with Tofu

Right off the bat—you don't have to! Simply top tofu with a bit of grated ginger, thinly sliced green onion, a flurry of bonito flakes and a sprinkle of soy sauce and you are good to go! If you are feeling a bit more adventurous, however, tofu is a great palette upon which to practice. Tofu's subtle flavor lets it adapt well to both savory and sweet dishes; it's the perfect all-around ingredient, lending itself to braising, deep frying, stewing, you name it! You can even use it in beverages and, of course, desserts! Tofu comes in a range of textures, from smooth and silky (great for eating as is, or in puddings etc.) to extra firm (grilling or stir frying). For newcomers to tofu, mixing it with some ground beef or chicken for a tasty and healthy hamburger substitute is a fine idea, as is incorporating it into smoothies or dips! You can't do wrong by adding tofu to any dish!

Because tofu is so palatable and easy to digest, it's perfect for baby food and for those who may be ill, or having trouble with their digestion. It's also great for seniors who want to eat lightly, but still get proper nutrition—tofu is a fine way to easily and tastily add protein to one's diet.

Yes, indeed, looks can be deceiving! This "little black dress" of a white food is not only incredibly healthy and delicious, but marvelously versatile—use it for the main course, cubed in soups, diced in salads, dressed for sides, blended in drinks and luscious, creamy puddings. Tofu can be made as plain or as fancy as you like. For those who'd like to add great flavor, texture and of course a boost of nutrition to their diet, what could be a better way to start than by bringing home some tofu today?