Over the last 1000 years, China has created an ingredient more powerful than chicken, using nothing more than plants.
The ingredient has more varieties. More culinary uses. Fewer saturated fats. Requires less land to grow.
That ingredient is tofu.
Tofu is misunderstood in the west. To many Americans, tofu is just a white block — firm, soft, or silken.
A good analogy for how Americans view tofu might be chicken wings. Noteworthy, but certainly not a daily food. Very limited. Dismissed by many chefs.
More specifically, Americans have three main complaints about these tofus:
- The beany taste
- The cakey texture
- Difficulty to prepare (in terms of western cooking techniques, like grilling and frying)
In truth, none of these complaints are inherent to tofu, just the specific varieties available to American consumers. To provide some examples:
- 素鸡 (suji), 豆腐皮 (doufupi), and 千页豆腐(qianyedoufu) have very little beanyness.
- 豆腐乳(doufuru) is soft, creamy, and mushy. 千页豆腐(qianyedoufu) has the chew of a tender fish cake. Thin-pressed 豆干(dougan) has a dense, firm bite.
- Thin-pressed 豆干(dougan) is a favorite of BBQ grillouts, because it absorbs smoky notes and never breaks apart.
Thankfully for chicken farmers, consumers don’t dismiss breast and thigh because they dislike wings. Yet, Americans dismiss all tofu because they don’t like firm cakes.
Avoiding grilled firm tofu is like avoiding ice water in the winter. (Of course it tastes bad!)
In contrast, this is how Chinese people see tofu.
In a small Chinese city, there are more types of tofu than cuts of chicken. These tofus also have more uses — from frying, stir-frying, steaming, stewing, mixing in salads, grinding into filling or dough, rolling into wraps, grilling, smoking, fermenting, blending into sauces —
In the tofu capitals of China, little-known areas around Guizhou Province, the situation looks more like this:
Nighttime Guiyang, the unofficial tofu capital of the world, is awash in the spices and chilies of street-side grillouts, tofu hotpots, and meltable tofu puffs. The varieties of my Master Shifu, descended from his remote rural village, are sold alongside meat, seafood, and dessert — as equals.
Tofu is cheap to produce. It is also incredibly sustainable. Chickens only convert 10% of the calories they eat into meat, resulting in 90% food waste and 10 times more land use. In contrast, tofu converts close to 100% of energy from soybeans.
Chicken is known for being a very healthy protein. So is tofu. In fact, consumers in one survey ranked tofu as healthier than chicken. Tofu has fewer saturated fats and far fewer hormones than chicken meat.
Most importantly, tofu is exciting!
Imagine having 23 new proteins to cook with! Proteins that melted. Others with as much protein as chicken breast. Proteins that tasted like provolone, and others not too different from blue cheese. Imagine. If you could have this abundance at fingertips, what new foods would you be able to create?
All that’s missing is the opportunity. Open your mind to what tofu is, to what it could become, and let’s get ready to start cooking.