Exploring Tofu: Origins and Recipes

Updated on January 28, 2020
Carb Diva profile image

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Depending on your current soy stance, this block of tofu might inspire oohs and ahs or icks and ews. But I'm convinced there's a tofu dish for everyone.
Depending on your current soy stance, this block of tofu might inspire oohs and ahs or icks and ews. But I'm convinced there's a tofu dish for everyone. | Source

The first time I ever LOOKED at a piece of tofu was when I bought a package to prepare for my daughter. She had recently become a vegetarian and, being a good supportive mom, I wanted to ensure that she was (still) eating a healthy, balanced diet.

That block of tofu looked ugly, smelled worse (to my uninitiated nose), and felt disgusting. Honestly, that initial prod with an index finger was almost my first and last time touching the stuff.

But then I donned my big-girl bloomers and got busy researching "what to do with tofu." I found that I wasn't alone in my apprehension of the jiggly white block sitting on my kitchen counter. Even then, there were almost 64 million hits on Google.

Soy Beans and Milk
Soy Beans and Milk | Source

What Is Tofu?

Tofu (also called bean curd) is a cheese-like product made from curdled soy milk. I know, that definition sounds “questionable,” (as in who would ever be brave or foolhardy enough to eat THAT?!), but tofu is one of the most widely used soybean products in the world . . . and it's been around for centuries.

Tofu (Allegedly) Originated in China

It's thought that tofu “happened” 2,000 years ago in China. This part of our tale is called the “Accidental Coagulation Theory.” As the story goes, someone seasoned soybean soup with unrefined sea salt, which contains magnesium chloride, a natural coagulant (a coagulant is a substance that separates milk into curds and whey, like cottage cheese).

Then It Went to Japan

During the Nara period (the time in Japanese history before Kyoto was established as the capitol city), Japanese priests went to China to study Buddhism. There they learned of "doufu," a protein-rich bean curd favored by Buddhists who followed a strict vegetarian diet. "Doufu" became "tofu" in the language of Japan.

But tofu did not remain a simple meal of devout priests. In time, it became popular among the samurai and the royal class. And then it went mainstream. The cookbook Tofu Hyakuchin, published in 1782, was a best seller.

And Then to the Rest of the World

Domingo Fernandez de Navarrete was a Spanish missionary. In 1646, he and 27 fellow priests left Spain for the Philippines, arriving at their destination on June 23, 1648.

Upon his arrival in Manila, Navarrete began to teach theology at the Dominican University of St. Thomas. But the personal call to work as a missionary brought him to change the direction of his life. In 1657, he left with a group of fellow brothers to preach and teach in China. He learned the language and worked briefly in the Fujian province. A backlash against mission efforts erupted in 1665, and Navarrete, forbidden to preach, was reduced to writing to spread the word of salvation.

But even this was not an easy course. After much trial and angst, he returned to Rome in 1673, with various factions of the diocese in turmoil—the Jesuits on one side, and the Dominicans and Franciscans on the other.

It was during this time that Navarrate's book Tratados historicos, politicos, ethicos, y religiosos de la monarchia de China was published in Madrid. The focus was (of course) on religion, but in this publication, he happened to describe how tofu was made.

Navarrete's book was translated into English and republished in 1704.

And Then . . . ?

According to soyinfocenter.com:

  • Tofu was first produced (non-commercial) in France by Paillieux in 1880.
  • Hirata & Co started to make tofu in San Francisco in 1895.
  • The first Westerner who produced tofu on a commercial scale was T.A. Van Gundy in 1929 when he started the company La Sierra Industries in California.

And now, I give you the recipes. In the words of Paul Harvey, here's "the rest of the story."

Tofu Recipes Featured in This Article

Extra-Firm Tofu

  • Scrambled t.
  • Baked t.

Firm Tofu

  • Broccoli quiche
  • Braised t. in caramel sauce
  • T. "meatballs"

Soft or Silken (Japanese) Tofu

  • T. pumpkin pie
  • Creamy mushroom linguine

Extra Firm Tofu

Scrambled Tofu
Scrambled Tofu | Source

Scrambled Tofu

You might be wondering why someone would want to cook tofu so that it looks and tastes like scrambled eggs. Some people do have an egg allergy or, if vegan, shun all animal products (not just meat).

When she was a freshman in college, my younger daughter (who was already a vegetarian) decided to try a vegan diet for a while. Honestly, this tofu scramble substitute is pretty darn good.

Baked Tofu
Baked Tofu | Source

Baked Tofu

Baked tofu contains all of the charms that raw straight-out-of-the-package tofu lacks. Instead of appearing white and flabby, it is bronzed and toned (think Hasselhoff Baywatch, circa 1989). It's smokey, savory, and crisp.

If you are new at preparing tofu, this might be a good place to start. This easy baked tofu from Kalynskitchen.com as great in a green salad, as a substitute for the "meat" in a meat-and-potatoes meal, or tossed in soup in place of croutons.

Firm Tofu

Broccoli Quiche
Broccoli Quiche | Source

Broccoli Quiche With Tofu

This was one of my first forays into cooking with tofu; my family (even Mr. Carb Diva) loved it.

Equipment and Supplies You Will Need

  • wet and dry measuring cups
  • measuring spoons
  • food processor
  • plastic wrap
  • rolling pin
  • 9-inch pie plate
  • fork
  • aluminum foil or parchment paper
  • pie weights, dried beans, or dry uncooked rice
  • sharp knife
  • large saute pan
  • saucepan with a steamer basket insert


  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons ice water
  • Non-stick cooking spray
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 pound broccoli
  • 1 pound firm tofu, drained
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper


  1. Preheat oven to 425˚F. Combine flour, salt, and baking powder in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse several times to combine. Stir together oil and water; slowly pour through feed tube with food processor running until dough forms.
  2. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead 10 times. Form into a small flat disk; wrap in plastic wrap and chill 20 minutes. After the dough is chilled, roll into a 12-inch circle on lightly floured surface.
  3. Gently ease into a 9-inch pie plate coated with cooking spray. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 10 minutes. Use a fork to lightly prick the bottom of the pastry. Take a sheet of aluminum foil or parchment paper and press it into the pie plate, gently pushing it right up against the pastry. Fill the sheet of foil or parchment paper with pie weights, dried beans, or even uncooked rice to hold it in place. This weight helps the pie dough hold its shape. Bake the pie pastry for 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.
  4. Reduce oven temperature to 400˚F. Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the 2 teaspoons olive oil; swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Cook the onion and garlic in the oil until softened—about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside. Place the broccoli pieces in a steamer basket; steam over simmering water until very tender, about 8–10 minutes. Add to onion mixture and set aside.
  5. In blender or food processor, puree the tofu and remaining ingredients (milk through ground black pepper) until smooth. Add the broccoli and onion and process until smooth. Pour into pre-baked crust; bake for 35–40 minutes or until quiche is set. Allow to sit for 5 minutes before serving.

Braised Tofu in Caramel Sauce (Tau Hu Kho)
Braised Tofu in Caramel Sauce (Tau Hu Kho) | Source

Braised Tofu in Caramel Sauce (Tau Hu Kho)

This recipe is sweet and salty with just a hint of heat from fresh ginger. This braised tofu idea first appeared in Sunset Magazine in March 2002.

Tofu "Meatballs"
Tofu "Meatballs" | Source

Tofu "Meatballs"

My family loves to have these with spaghetti sauce or with teriyaki over rice.


  • 1 pound firm tofu, mashed
  • 1/2 cup wheat germ
  • 1/4 cup parsley, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoons pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoons oregano


  1. Preheat oven to 350˚F.
  2. Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
  3. Form into 1 1/2 inch balls. Arrange in well-oiled baking pan.
  4. Bake at 350˚F about 30 minutes, turning every 10 minutes to brown evenly.

Soft or Silken (Japanese) Tofu

Tofu Pumpkin Pie
Tofu Pumpkin Pie | Source

Tofu Pumpkin Pie


  • 1 can (16 ounces) pureed pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie filling)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 package (10-12 ounces) soft tofu, processed in a blender until smooth
  • 1 9-inch unbaked pie shell


  1. Preheat oven to 425˚F.
  2. Cream the pumpkin and sugar together. Add salt, spices, and processed tofu; mix thoroughly.
  3. Pour mixture into pie shell and bake for 15 minutes. Lower heat to 350˚F. and bake for another 40 minutes.
  4. Chill and serve.

Creamy Mushroom Linguine
Creamy Mushroom Linguine | Source

Michael Kitson is a 23-year-old Londoner who is a "food-obsessed, dog-loving, photography nerd." And he is a vegan. A vegan with amazing photographs of indulgent foods, foods like this creamy mushroom linguine that are so rich-tasting and creamy you'll never miss the dairy.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Lum


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      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        23 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Cynthia, I am so happy to hear from you. We are "clasping hands over the border." I must admit that I do not cook vegan, but I often include vegetarian options in my hubs (I DO understand the difference).

        If you have the time to look at some of my other articles you will see that imparting the history of the food is my "thing". That's my passion.

      • techygran profile image

        Cynthia Zirkwitz 

        23 months ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

        Linda, I am a vegan who also minced around the tofu at first, while my more adventuresome husband ate it right out of the pack (with NO flavourings,etc.-- gak!!). I have come to enjoy it and cook with it quite a bit, but it is always nice to expand one's repertoire, and tofu definitely allows for that, so versatile it is! I like how you have provided the history, and uses for the different grades of firmness. All the best, Cynthia

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Lawrence, scary looking stuff that flabby hunk of tofu, but it can be the master of disguise, taking on the flavors of whatever you cook it with. Thanks for stopping by.

      • lawrence01 profile image

        Lawrence Hebb 

        2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand


        We enjoy Tofu in Thai food, and some Japanese food, but I have to admit, on its own, it looks pretty drab!

        Thank you for the explanation of its origins.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Nell, if I have you at least considering the possibility...perhaps my work here is complete. Try the meatballs.

      • Nell Rose profile image

        Nell Rose 

        2 years ago from England

        How funny! lol! I was peering at Tofu in the supermarket earlier, and prodding the packet to see what it was! LOLOLO! thanks for the info! still not sure, but....!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Flourish - I've been waiting too. Typically within 48 hours one of my posts is "chosen" and moved to Delishably. I would hope that personal feelings would not play into whether or not a hub subject is elevated to a niche. {{sigh}}.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image


        2 years ago from USA

        Writing about my Vegan Challenge experience and outcomes and wanted to try to link to this article if HP will allow it. I see that they haven't put it on delishably yet. Do they usually take awhile or do you suspect they're tofu haters?

      • k@ri profile image

        Kari Poulsen 

        2 years ago from Ohio

        That's good to know with Thanksgiving just around the corner. :)

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Kari - You cannot taste the silken tofu in the pumpkin pie. I've had problems in the past with cooking custard-like pies, but this one (no eggs) is fool-proof.

      • k@ri profile image

        Kari Poulsen 

        2 years ago from Ohio

        Nice history on tofu. I have only ever used the firm tofu. I think I should give the others a try.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 years ago from Washington State, USA

        MsDora, I wish you lived next door to me. I'd invite you over and we would have such fun cooking together. If you do pass along the recipes, thank you. And DO try the meatballs. They are really quite good!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Nancy, thank you for your kind words. I'm glad I conquered my fear and loathing of tofu.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        2 years ago from The Caribbean

        Linda, for years I have struggled for the courage to cook tofu; don't think I'll get it, though I eat very little meat. Thanks anyway, for the information and the recipes. I'm not good at cooking, so I'll pass them on. Interested in the meatballs!

      • alekhouse profile image

        Nancy Hinchliff 

        2 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

        Very comprehensive article, and the pictures are great. I've been cook with Tofu for years, having run a bed and breakfast where many of my guests were vegans and vegetarians. You got some good examples here, most of which I'm familiar with. Your daughter is lucky she has someone like you to cook for her.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Bill, I had braced myself for the worst of comments. I must say you have demonstrated a remarkable amount of self-restraint. I'm proud of you. OK, carry on.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        2 years ago from Olympia, WA

        In the interest of sustaining our friendship I'll simply say this is never going to happen in my lifetime. :)

        Happy November!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Flourish - If you want to continue the "vegan" the quiche is also really good. You can use soy or almond milk and omit the Parmesan.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image


        2 years ago from USA

        Absolutely will I try those “meatballs.” My grandfather was vegetarian for religious reasons and lived with us when I was a child. He had a fabulous recipe for meatless hamburgers, but it had cheese in it. Thank you for this article. Although today is the last day of my Vegan for a Month Challenge, it’s been so successful and easier than I imagined that I’m going to be making some permanent modifications.


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