Why Tofu Became a Punchline

How did a nutritious, delicious, versatile staple get an unfair reputation as bland hippie food?

Tofu cubes
Photo: Nadine Greeff / Adobe Stock

For a good half-century, Americans have taken aim at tofu with the same glee they mock airplane food and vegans. "It looks like an albino brick or a soap eraser with a thyroid problem," read one particularly acidic AP article from 1980, a profile of the Bountiful Bean Plant in Madison, Wisc.

Even tofu proponents often present the glories of bean curd with a pinched smile—as the full title of Deborah Madison's 2000 cookbook illustrates: This Can't Be Tofu! 75 Recipes to Cook Something You Never Thought You Would—and Love Every Bite. (Don't blame Madison—I blame her publisher.) Conservatives from Ann Coulter to Ted Cruz have equated a taste for tofu with such liberal fallacies as voting for single-payer healthcare and combating climate change.

They have one thing right, however. If anyone deserves blame for making tofu, a 2000-year-old staple food in Asia that has evolved into hundreds of sophisticated forms and sustained millions of lives, into a punchline, it's the American hippie kids who stopped eating meat in the 1970s. And if you don't approve of their way with bean curd, just know: To them, tofu was a godsend.

Soybean curd actually spread across America in three waves. As traced by soy foods historian William Shurtleff, the first tofu makers on this continent were Chinese and Japanese artisans who set up shop in the 19th century. Then came the Seventh Day Adventists, vegetarians who started manufacturing canned soy meats and cheeses in the 1920s and 1930s, in part to meet the American expectation of dinner as a meat-starch-veg plate. Mary Burgess's 1976 black Adventist cookbook Soul to Soul, for instance, includes recipes for meatloaf (canned veggieburger and "chicken-style" seasoning) and country stew (beans, garden vegetables, TVP). Other Adventists fondly remember veggie dogs, Choplets, and FriChik.

Tofu rarely makes a mention outside these two contexts until the mid 1970s, when Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, his then-girlfriend and later wife, wrote The Book of Tofu. The couple met in Tokyo a few years before—he an American Zen monk, she a Japanese artist—and bonded over a burning desire to alleviate hunger in the world. Shurtleff had been in the Peace Corps in Biafra (now Nigeria) in the 1960s, leaving just before civil war and famine killed millions. In Tokyo, the vegetarian couple lived off tofu, and saw in this inexpensive protein a way to feed the world.

They apprenticed themselves to a nearby tofu master and hitch-hiked across Japan, crashing in monasteries and open fields, compiling 500 recipes Aoyagi illustrated. Forty-five years later, their 1975 Book of Tofu is still a remarkable survey of tofu's place in Japanese cuisine, chronicled just as modernity was erasing centuries-old artisanship. Shurtleff and Aoyagi described methods for wrapping blocks of tofu in rice straw and simmering it; burying tofu in miso for a year until it takes on the consistency and funk of blue cheese; even curdling soy milk with seawater, a practice the couple learned at a Japanese ashram on a remote southern island.

Cookbook Cover

But when they moved to California and spent a year criss-crossing the United States, preaching the wonders of tofu, the dish they cooked up to win over American audiences was potato chips with tofu dip. And it worked. The book sold 100,000 copies in its first five years in print.

In the 1975 edition, Shurtleff—an archivist to the core who still maintains a massive collection of records at SoyInfo Center—compiled a directory of about 50 tofu shops in the United States, almost all owned by Chinese and Japanese Americans. One, Matsuda-Hinode in Los Angeles, had even invented a process to package soy curd in tubs of water in 1963 and distribute it to mainstream grocery chains.

Just five years after the Book of Tofu came out, a New York Times profile of the authors' work estimated there were now 200 tofu shops in the country, many started by idealistic white kids who started making bean curd in commune kitchens and bathtubs.

The rush to embrace tofu wasn't merely a shared desire to prevent global famine. For newly converted 1970s vegetarians, it was necessity. Before they learned how to make soy products like tofu and tempeh, for instance, members of the Farm, America's largest rural hippie commune in Tennessee, told me they survived on soybean burritos, Adventist TVP steaks that gave them indigestion, and "souffles" made by cooking soy flour and water.

Tofu solved so many problems: It was inexpensive, minimally processed, and high in protein. It didn't take high-tech equipment to make. Tofu was convenient and quick-cooking, too. You could hit it with a little Bragg's Liquid Aminos and throw it in a sauté pan. Recipe calls for chicken? Sub in tofu.

Some cooks stopped there. Others invented elaborate recipes, their tastes shaped by the whole-grain, all-natural spirit of the times. The Horn of the Moon Cookbook's Mushroom Tofu Stroganoff smothered tamari-marinated tofu cubes in onions, dill, mushrooms, and a cup of sour cream. To make the Coconut Mothballs in Tofu Cookbook, the authors recommended molding coconut, honey, mashed tofu, and wheat germ into nuggets and throwing them in the freezer. Mollie Katzen devoted a section of The Enchanted Broccoli Forest to tofu: Tofu, Spinach, & Walnut Loaf. Tofu Nut Balls. Szechuan Tofu Triangles.

Cookbook Cover

After talking to hundreds of counterculture cooks my parents' age, I've come to think of vegetarian food from the 1970s and 1980s as peasant food made by cooks who never learned to be peasants. Nobody watches Survivor and thinks, "Ooh, I'd buy that cookbook." Similarly, you don't drop a bunch of recent college grads in a rural commune, convince them they should only eat foods they've never seen before, and expect them to turn out culinary masterpieces. Or at least, that's the message of forgiveness and unity I would extend to my parents' generation.

And yet I confess that, as a child of the 1970s, I would still eat all of those tofu dishes. To a kid whose favorite foods were oatmeal bread and white rice, stir-fried tofu was amazing: custardy-chewy and appealingly, soothingly bland.

But I also get where the AP journalist of 1980 was coming from when he or she described tofu's charms as "cold, grayish-white, occasionally slippery, and sometimes squishy."

If you didn't grow up in an Asian-American family, or in a city where you were surrounded by Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese food, tofu and other soy foods have always been a substitute. Not cheesecake but whipped silken tofu. Not steak or chicken or eggs but firm bean curd. Tofu will never perform the central purpose we expect of meat or cream cheese—infuse the entire dish with their flavor and mouth-filling umami.

It never needed to. "If you think about the soybean and all of its incarnations—soy sauce, all of the doufu and doufu related products, soy milk, so many different things—in our culture, these are foods unto themselves," says Hsiao-Ching Chou, author of Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food. "You appreciate it for what it is."

Where four decades of recipe writers tried to whip up enthusiasm for tofu with their methods for covering up its blandness, Hsiao-Ching wants to celebrate the loveliness of its subtle beany flavor. "The intention isn't to mask the flavor of tofu but to enhance it," she writes in the book. Her recipes respect tofu in its varied textural splendor—the nubbly edges and bubbly chew of tofu puffs, the squeaky density of five-spice pressed tofu, tofu-skin ribbons with the texture of silk.

In other words, the problem with tofu has never been tofu. The problem was always us.

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