Easy Guide to Tofu

To tofu or not tofu?  Surprisingly, this is still a common question and debate for a lot of Americans.  I am from Malaysia and grew up eating tofu.  I was astonished and really taken aback when I first discovered the strong feelings that most  Americans seem to have towards this most mild of foods.

Tofu or bean curd originated from China about 2000 years.  Tofu was introduced to the US in the 1700’s and was popularized by the Chinese immigrants who came to California to work on the railroads in the 1800’s.

Tofu really only became mainstream in the US in the 1970’s with the growing popularity of ethnic foods.   The price of meat also increased significantly during this time and this spurred the use of tofu as a popular meat substitute.

Tofu is high in protein and low in saturated fat.  100 g or 3.5 oz of tofu typically contains 8 g of protein and 0.5 g of saturated fat.  Tofu comes from the soybean plant which is packed with vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

Soy is considered a complete protein, i.e. it contains all the 9 amino acids that the human body cannot produce on it’s own so tofu rightfully deserves it’s standing as the de facto meat substitute.

I don’t quite understand the bad reputation that still seems to linger for tofu.  I’ve heard them all; tofu is tasteless, it’s food for health nuts, it looks funny, it wiggles, and on and on….  Well, I am here to tell you that while some of these are true (it does wiggle and look different), there are also lots of things that are not true.

It is not just for health nuts, it is not tasteless and interestingly it’s bland nature makes tofu one of the most versatile foods around.   It readily absorbs strong flavors so as a cook, you can give it whatever tastes you favor.  You can add interesting flavors to tofu by marinating it.

Tofu is produced the same way cheese is.  The liquid protein is coagulated using enzymes which produces the custard like product or tofu.  You can read more about tofu production here.

There is a wide variety of tofu in the market which can unfortunately lead to confusion.  I created the easy guide to tofu below to help you understand and hopefully start cooking with tofu.


There are 2 categories of tofu.  Fresh tofu which is produced directly from soymilk.  Processed tofu which are products made from fresh tofu.

Fresh Tofu:

There are 3 main varieties of fresh tofu which can be differentiated by the amount of water that is pressed from the soy curds.  Fresh tofu is usually sold in water to maintain the moisture.

1. Soft or silken tofu:

Undrained or unpressed tofu which has the highest moisture content among all the fresh tofus.  Soft tofu is more delicate than firm tofu and is an ideal substitute for eggs and dairy products.  You can add soft tofu to smoothies or baked desserts.

Here are 2 easy recipes which uses soft tofu 2 ways; as a main dish and a dessert.

Ma-Po Tofu

Ma Po Tofu. Courtesy of CNN travel

Vegan Chocolate Mousse

Vegan Chocolate mousse. Courtesy of food52.com

2.  Firm Tofu:

Drained and pressed tofu which is between soft and extra firm tofu.  It still has a high quantity of moisture and the firmer texture makes it easier to handle.  I like using firm tofu for Thai curries.  Here is an easy recipe for Panang Tofu Curry

Panang Tofu Curry. Courtesy of epicurious.com

3.  Extra Firm Tofu

Fresh tofu which has the least amount of moisture.  Easiest of the tofu to work with and I like using extra firm tofu for stir frys.  Here is an easy recipe for Honey Ginger Tofu Veggie Stir Fry.

Honey Ginger Veggie Stir Fry. Courtesy of pinchofyum.com

Processed Tofu

There are many types of processed tofu and some of these products probably originated from the need to preserve fresh tofu before we had refrigeration. Some types of processed tofus include fermented, dried, fried and frozen tofu.


In Asia tofu is usually cooked with meat and it is just a regular food item.  Nothing special or extraordinary and perhaps this is the best way to approach eating tofu.

Sure, it is a wonderful source of protein and a fantastic meat alternative but it is so much more than just a meat alternative for vegetarians.  To view tofu simply as a meat substitute, diminishes the multifacetedness of tofu.

I can tell you as an Asian that the appropriating of tofu almost exclusively by vegetarians in the West is perplexing to a lot of us.   I am glad tofu is appreciated by so many but I want even more people to enjoy and try tofu.

Omnivores should feel as equally vested in tofu.  It’s fine if you tried tofu and didn’t like it but don’t simply exclude it from your diet because you have been wrongly led to believe that tofu is the sole domain of herbivores.

Here are some wonderful examples of tofu cooked with meat.

Braised pork with tofu. Courtesy of steamykitchen.com

Steamed tofu with shrimp. Courtesy of cookingwithalison.com

To tofu or not tofu?  I hope your answer after reading this article is to tofu!