America Doesn’t Know Tofu

George Stiffman

China has spent millennia exploring the culinary possibilities of soybean curds. The West has barely scratched the surface.

Guiyang didn’t have many restaurants, per se. The metropolis was more of a city-wide night market. Even in the pre-COVID days, streets like Qingyun Road were only half-filled with cars, to leave room for tents and tables that stretched to the horizon, and for smoke and steam that rose into the clouds. Eateries didn’t burden you with 14-page menus, common at Shanghainese or Northeastern restaurants. No — a làoguō 烙锅 shop sold laoguo (think Korean BBQ with more vegetables, cooked over a clay pot dome). A sīwáwa 丝娃娃 shop sold siwawa (shreds of 20-plus varieties of fresh and pickled vegetables that you roll into a thin, rice cake-like taco). And tofu stands sold tofu. But probably not the tofu you’re thinking of.

Pale slabs of bean curd shivered over a sputtering steel grill box. As their tops bathed in the cool summer air, their bottoms tensed and colored. When Auntie flipped over a piece, the tofu’s underside was purplish like a black eye, its thick skin waxy and crackly like a fried egg bottom. And then it started expanding.

The tofu began puffing up, convulsing like a pot of water that couldn’t quite boil. For a minute or two it grew, and grew, and grew, until the tofu had ballooned to double its original size. Finally a ray of hot steam broke through the taut, leathery skin. Out trickled a lazy stream of creamy, off-white liquid.

Auntie furrowed a small hole on one end of the tofu and spooned in her signature sauce: ground fire-roasted chiles, soy sauce, ginger, mint, and a medicinal root prized for its grassy, fishy scent (鱼腥草 yúxīngcǎo). She passed over her creation: liàn’ài dòufuguǒ 恋爱豆腐果. The tofu dumpling of love.

I bit in. Out seeped a viscous, sulfurous liquid, rich as an egg yolk custard but clean as freshly ground soymilk. Firm tofu had sacrificed itself, melting into juice. My tongue refused to believe it. This was tofu?

I had found it painful going vegan in college, giving up most of the foods that I loved. But after spending a summer in China, all that changed. I was now here on the pretense of “study abroad,” but really just crisscrossing the country to find foods that would excite me and other would-be vegans back in Los Angeles. I had to learn about the tofu dumpling of love.

David Huang

Guiyang’s streetside tofu vendors are part of the ancient history of Chinese vegetarian cuisine. The oldest and best-known school is Buddhist and Daoist temple food, or zhāicài 斋菜. Both traditions discourage the killing of animals, or even the desiring of animal flesh, and over centuries have nurtured plants into satiating meat-free meals. Temple food has many quirks. Alliums are banned for being aphrodisiacs. Coriander seeds, originally prohibited to distinguish Chinese Buddhists from Hindus opposite the Himalayas, are also a no-go. As is usually the case, constraints in one area have led to innovations elsewhere, like a closer relationship to mushrooms and herbs such as xiāngchūn 香椿, or Chinese toon. Adherents don’t evangelize via protest or paid advertising; they open restaurants, from Michelin-starred eateries in Shanghai and Beijing to $3 all-you-can-eat buffets ubiquitous in the Southeast.

Austere temple food is a far cry from the lavish feasts of China’s emperors, or gōngtíng sùshí 宫廷素食, imperial vegetarianism. The Qing Dynasty’s Kāngxī 康熙, a devout Buddhist, commanded legions of chefs to recreate the flavors and textures of meat from plants: pork ribs made from bamboo; goose made from marinated, coiled tofu skin; and crab meat from potato and carrot. Over time, these foods have bled into more mainstream Jiangsu and Zhejiang cooking, eaten by tens of millions in the regions surrounding Shanghai. Restaurants like Shanghai’s famed Gōng Dé Lín 功德林 offer a taste into history, allowing guests to eat like an emperor.

While temple and imperial vegetarianism are more overt, China’s final plant-based cuisine is far more pervasive. It’s not moral, religious, or even intentional. It’s economic. Historically, meat was expensive. The default diet, therefore, has always been mínjiān sùshí 民间素食, or common vegetarianism. Because the cuisine is so diffuse, however, it’s harder to pin it down. The unbelievable diversity of vegan foods in China is difficult to capture in words. A visit to Chinatown won’t cut it. These are the foods of the Chinese poor, those who aren’t able to leave.

Yet these origins have led to a paradox: Even though there are oceans of common vegetarian foods in China, Chinese people find them less desirable. They taste like poverty.

This is especially true for the king of it all — tofu.

Why in the world would you study tofu making? my neighbors would interrogate me. It’s the career for those who have no other options!

Five months after my first taste of melting tofu, summer break arrived, and I was back in Guiyang. It took two weeks of meandering produce markets, buying and tasting different tofus, asking shop owner after shop owner, to find a teacher. Finally, one agreed. The next day, I woke in the dead of night, crawled out of bed, and wandered over. I had apparently undershot my wake-up call. At 4 a.m., the only thing for sale was sex, and my teacher was nowhere to be seen. I sat down on the curb outside his boarded-up shop, across from three women huddling in the shadows. I had nothing to do, so I pulled out my journal and began jotting down tofu goals. Learn best practices for coagulating soy milk. Measure their water’s mineral content. Figure out the specific roles of acid and alkaline…

When I looked up, a skeleton of a man was approaching. Tattoo sleeves covered his bony arms, and his chiseled glare screamed out to me, Run! He came to a stop just one yard behind my body and stood in silence. I broke the ice because I didn’t want to die — Nice weather, bro. Are summers always this mild? He was stupefied. One of the women came over. What are you writing? She laughed at this foreign idiot, journaling in a dark alley outside the brothels at 4 a.m. I half-stammered, half-shouted back, I’m just trying to study tofu! And she was stupefied as well. I kept my head down, writing until my teacher came 45 minutes later. The next day, I decided to go over at 5 a.m.

Despite the early-morning wakeups and close calls, my new teacher turned out to be a double-talker. For two days, I sat in the corner of his car garage-turned-tofu shop, bathing in unventilated coal fumes and watching for hours and hours as he and his brother went through the process of making their tofu. They wouldn’t talk to me, or allow me to ask any questions, and on the third day demanded payment: 10,000 yuan in tuition. I didn’t blame the brothers — after all, they were making tofu because they had no choice. I told them I’d think about it and left to find another teacher.

Leave soy curds to be, and they will coalesce into silken tofu. Spoon them into a mold, press out some water, and they become soft, firm, pressed, or thin tofu sheets. Smoke, dehydrate, ferment, or alkali-treat these tofus and you arrive at several new varieties. Throw them in the freezer and their inner structures will become porous like a sponge.

There are also tofus made without soy curds. Cook soy protein with fat, starch, and seasonings and you’ll have a smooth, dense, fishcake-like tofu. Or warm soymilk and enjoy the rich, high-protein film that forms on top, either as thin sheets or rolled into delicious tofu sticks, fresh or dried. All in all, there are more than 20 types of tofu.

A common misconception outside of Asian communities is that tofu is just an ingredient. In fact, it’s an entire category of proteins. Just as a chef would never cook chicken breast like chicken feet, so too are these tofus completely different from one another. They have different strengths and weaknesses. They have different flavors. They have different mouthfeels. It’s not like substituting a black bean for a kidney bean. Because these tofus are so different from one another, and from meat, each one opens up its own world of culinary possibilities. These are the most versatile plant-based proteins in existence.

There are some foods that weave their way across China, like the legendary tofu pudding — dòufunǎo 豆腐脑, dòuhuā 豆花, lǎodòufu 老豆腐. Sichuan and Guizhou people prefer firmer tofu, eaten atop rice or alkaline noodles with burnt chile oil to dip. Those in the Jiangsu-Shanghai region eat a soft pudding and top it à la carte: pickles, soy sauce, vinegar, salt, sugar, chile oil, sesame oil. Guangdong and Fujian tofu pudding is exceptionally watery, almost drinkable, drizzled with a refreshing touch of sugar or ginger syrup. Tianjin and Northeastern pudding is rich and full-bodied, doused with a hearty gravy of star anise, dried daylily, and shiitake. Each variant adapts to the local tastes. Almost all are vegetarian or vegan.

Or variants of pressed tofu with garlic chives. Almost every region of China serves something similar — sometimes just garlic chives, tofu, and soy sauce; some with fresh chiles; others with pickled chiles; others with chile bean pastes; some with soybean oil; others with fragrant Chinese rapeseed oil or lard.

Others are regional specialties, like the Huaiyang (Jiangsu-Shanghai area) hóngshāo sùjī红烧素鸡, red braised vegetarian chicken. Or the Dongbei (Northeast) staple jiānjiāo gāndòufu尖椒干豆腐, tofu sheets with green chiles. Or Guizhou’s tofu dumplings of love.

It took me another week, but I finally found a tofu teacher — a wholesale producer of Dafang and bàojiāng 爆浆 “exploding-juice” tofus, two varieties that until recently had never been made outside a village near Bijie, Guizhou. Master Luo (罗师傅 Luó Shīfu) and his wife were waiting for me at the base of their factory, a crumbling three-story brick home atop a hill. To their left were two massive wood furnaces, which at 2 a.m. lit up the darkness with dancing flames. To their right was an outhouse. We entered the factory, and an ocean of soy milk fumes blocked the firelight, and it was once again nighttime. In the first production room, a brawny assistant perched atop a sputtering cauldron, stirring with a pole as tall as he was. Two other production rooms sputtered away. Master Luo guided us up a back stairwell to the living quarters.

A plate of fried tofu awaited. Eat, Master Luo directed. I dunked a thin slice in chile powder and took a bite. A delicate burst of juice and sulfury umami danced across my tongue. I tasted another piece, letting it glide through my mouth, gentle as creamy dark chocolate but supple as sashimi. I couldn’t take it. I wouldn’t teach our craft to just anyone, Master Luo said, but I see you as an American friend. My family’s been making tofu for five generations. If you choose, I will teach you too.

We got to work immediately. Joining Master Luo’s assistant in the boiler room, we fed pail after pail of soaked soybeans through a wet mill, through which their milk cascaded down into a stone-set cauldron as large as a bathtub. The white slurry bubbled away, occasionally crawling up the walls of the cauldron. Our wood furnace had no thermostat; we simply stirred the soy milk harder, letting cool air soothe its fever. Our soy milk took a pass through fine muslin cloth, and we folded in a redolent, green-tinged liquid. Suāntāng 酸汤, sour soup. The soy milk was perturbed. It began collapsing in on itself, its proteins coalescing into little spaetzles, then magnificent, pillowy curds, which floated up to the surface. The soymilk had started cloudy; now it was clear.

These delicate curds warranted caution. We dared not stir. Scooping them up in rounded, plastic buckets, we lay them down into shallow wooden crates, which were then fitted snugly with a lid, stacked on top of a rickety, rusted workbench, and flattened under the weight of a hand-cranked hydraulic press. Twenty minutes later, we unloaded the molds. The beautiful curds were gone, and in their place was a 5 mm-thick slab of tofu. Master Luo dusted his creation with a sprinkle of salt, MSG, and baked baking soda (baking transforms the soda into more alkaline sodium carbonate). Upon contact, the white skin darkened, taking on a tinge of yellow. The tofu was stacked, carved, and bagged. But it wouldn’t be eaten yet — it needed several hours for the seasonings to permeate. It couldn’t be eaten anyways. It was still just 3 a.m., the markets weren’t yet open, and we still had three more batches to go.

The previous batch of exploding-juice tofu went quickly because we could press it using ordinary box molds. Not so for the Dafang variety. Master Luo ladled a heavy spoonful of curds onto a muslin cloth. The curds jiggled precariously inside his palm. Corner by corner, he lifted the edges of the cloth, allowing the curds to settle against each other into one cohesive lump. Pinching the sides inwards, he rolled a chunky, square burrito, then set it to the side. We’re richer than ever before, eating more meat and less tofu. But we still demand the same quality. Master Luo seemed both proud and tired. There is no substitute for hand-wrapped tofu. A barrel of curds, half my size, stood awaiting.

I had come to Master Luo to learn about the tofu dumpling of love, and it turned out that his exploding-juice tofu was not much different. Both were playing a game of pH. When we added sour soup to hot soy milk, the pH dropped, causing the proteins to clump into curds. Adding baked baking soda after pressing raised its pH, partially reversing the reaction. The resulting tofu wasn’t like soy milk, though, but rather sludgier, creamier, more sulfury. Notably, while we added alkali to both Dafang and exploding-juice tofus, only the latter melted. Tofu needed to pass a certain threshold to liquefy. Any lower, as for the Dafang tofu, and alkali merely seasoned and tenderized.

Master Luo’s wife, whom we called Shīniáng 师娘, didn’t speak any Mandarin, so we were never able to communicate except through her cooking. Off a lone burner set against the far ashen walls of the living quarters, she would cook us family meals. Potato coins were fried in mustardy rapeseed oil and tossed with a miso-like wheat seasoning. (The seasoning, made by extended family in their village, had no Mandarin name.) Soy milk was siphoned from the production line for fresh tofu pudding, which Shiniang served with cíbā làjiāo糍粑辣椒 — a fiery and salty fried chile paste. Unwanted edge pieces of exploding-juice tofu, thick like pizza crust, were stir-fried with chiles and green garlic. As I bit into my first bite, I almost spit it back out. The plump, slippery bite couldn’t have been anything but poached chicken thigh. But it wasn’t. Occasionally, Shīniáng had too many scraps for her pan, so she would throw them on the balcony to dry. A couple days later, the tofu would be brown and shriveled. She would fry them until they puffed like popcorn, and we would eat them with a sprinkle of salt and MSG.

These hyperlocal dishes are the heart of common vegetarianism, and their counterparts are found all over China. Even in the places you’d least suspect. The northern city of Yinchuan — famous for its whole roast lamb, not its vegan cooking — still had plenty for me to eat.

Corn spaghetti (玉米面 yùmǐmiàn) in a pickled vegetable soup? The noodles, plumper than their wheat counterparts, ferried a smoky, acidic broth made with wok-charred, lacto-fermented mustard greens (酸菜 suāncài). Succulent baby bok choy (上海青 Shànghǎi qīng) floated lazily through the broth; blanched, the greens gave up their own water content and reabsorbed the soup. Incredible.

Peanut tofu with hemp bran (麻麸拌花生豆腐 máfū bàn huāshēngdòufu)? The tofu had a gelatinous quality, nearer to hard-boiled egg whites than bean curd, and the hemp alluded playfully to white pepper. It’s a local specialty, my server disclosed. We refine hemp into oil, or boil and crumble it onto food. The taste is smoother and more balanced than peppercorn.

Tucked behind an elementary school, a small shop advertised four types of oat noodles. The one I tried was like a toothy, ribbed linguini. Dressed with a light chile broth and carrot dice, cucumber sticks, and red and green Thai chiles, it tasted rough and substantial.

In three days in Yinchuan, I tried a dozen vegan foods that you simply couldn’t find in China’s big cities. The same thing happened in every place I visited. Wuyuan, a countryside renowned for its canola fields that flower in the springtime, situated near the central-east Jiangnan region, had a breakfast cuisine that was almost entirely vegetarian. Their miniature bāo 包, loaded with chile oil-drenched potatoes, radishes, or tofu, pleated, and steamed, were juicier than a Shanghai soup dumpling. Guiyang, where I worked with Master Luo, had at least eight unique tofu varieties you couldn’t find anywhere else. The city of Jinan in Shandong Province, around 250 miles south of Beijing, served a one-of-a-kind seitan called ǒumiànjīn 藕面筋, or lotus wheat gluten. The texture can only be compared to osteoporosis: Silky, gelatinous shells contained what once was whole tissue but now was just holey. These vessels were filled to the brim with spicy raw garlic, Chinese sesame paste, and cilantro, and they cleared your nose like a hearty helping of wasabi.

City by city, village by village, my astonishment gave way to wonder. How were people not talking about these foods?

Summer waned, and the impending fall term taunted me from across the ocean. It was time to say goodbye. Master Luo sent me off with a bag of popped tofu and one wish: Don’t forget us.

As the years passed, demand for Master Luo’s tofus continued falling. Eventually, during the pandemic, sales flatlined, and his fifth-generation family business could no longer stay afloat. We’re moving to Shanghai, he told me over WeChat. Going to sell electronics.

The ability of Chinese craftspeople and chefs to turn humble plant-based ingredients into dazzling culinary experiences is on par with the highest gastronomy in the West. But to the creators, these foods are rarely seen as “art.” They are subsistence. To consumers, these foods are not pride and treasure. They are relics of poverty, discardable afterthoughts en route to modernization.

This trend might appear to affirm a doctrine of economic development: that rising income increases demand for meat. But I wonder if this is the wrong lesson to draw. Chinese people don’t reject common vegetarian foods because there is something fundamentally more valuable about meat. They do so because of perceived value — associations of plants with poverty and meat with prosperity.

I think this fact is lost on many animal advocates in the West. Over the last few decades, investors have poured billions of dollars into companies attempting to replicate the experience of eating meat, dairy, and eggs. These products won’t succeed, however, on cost, taste, and convenience; they need to win on perceived value.

But there are many ways to arrive at perceived value. There are incredible plant-based foods, with storied histories, all around the world. And there are countless foodies everywhere who might enjoy them. Some of us may forever crave meat. But some of us have long since forgotten it. We’re so immersed in other worlds of flavor that animal flesh is an afterthought.

George Stiffman is the author of Broken Cuisine, a forthcoming book exploring how Chinese tofus can be incorporated into western cooking. Previously, he lived in China, working in traditional tofu production and Buddhist restaurant kitchens.

Published March 2023

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