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Beancurd: History of an Ancient Protein Source

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Summer Volume: 1995 Issue: 2(2) page(s): 7, 11, and 13

Each night more than one quarter of the world's population goes to bed hungry. Solutions have been suggested; some have a common denominator, the soybean. National Geographic, in 1987, stated that: "this prodigious bean is seen ..... as the weapon against world hunger." The reason, soybeans are high quality protein, they grow well in poor soil, and the plants support microorganisms that enrich or fix the ground with nitrogen.

In Asia, this is not news. People have been using soybeans as a source of protein for thousands of years. The first known Chinese record of this bean, Glycine ussuriensis, the progenitor of the major current cultivar, Glycine max, is recorded in the Chinese materia medicaBen Cao Gang Mu. It is attributed to the (mythical) Emperor Shen-Nong in 2383 B.C.

Not everyone agrees that this early record is accurate. T. Hymowitz, in a 1970 article in Economic Botany, reported that soybeans first emerged about the 11th century BCE. They were called shu and were repeatedly referred to in the Shijing also known as The Book of Songs. This argument aside, soybeans were one of the five sacred grains essential to Chinese civilization; the others: rice, wheat, and two kinds of millet (sometimes referred to as millet and barley).

Soybeans have been called 'nature's miracle protein.' As a matter of fact, protein is the key word when describing them. Historians say that China's survival has been possible because of these beans; they are particularly high in protein and in linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid that cannot be synthesized by man. Soybeans are a versatile legume. They are used for oil, meal, flour, milk, sauce, sprouts and cheese. Yes, cheese, or what some Chinese call dofu or doufu.

What is doufu? One person said that it sounds like 'a karate chop,' another calls it 'slabs of light cheese floating in water.' For those unfamiliar with it, doufu is a product made from one of the oldest of crops cultivated by man, the soybean. Its curd or soy cheese is called doufu by the Chinese and is a product made by boiling soy milk, adding a precipitating agent such as calcium sulfate, separating out the precipitate or curds, and finally, pressing the solids into molds. The resulting item is a very smooth textured food resembling and sometimes called cheese. This 'tofu' as the Japanese commonly call it, contains highly digestible protein with little carbohydrate.

The Chinese refer to doufu as 'meat without the bones' or 'meat of the fields.' And just as one does with meat, they use it in dozens of forms and in hundreds, perhaps thousands of recipes. Be it called doufu or tofu, bean curd is a culinary chameleon that takes on flavors and seasonings of anything with which it is cooked. It is a low calorie, low sodium, cholesterol free, protein rich, easily digestible, and nutritious vegetable source of all essential amino acids.

Theories abound as to when this coagulated form of soybeans was first produced. It's use predates the common era. Early indications are that it was known about the second century BCE with credit given to Liu An, a Chinese king of the Han dynasty. In the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BCE to 220 CE), China had close ties with Japan and Korea. Introduction of the soybean and of its coagulated soft white mass to both of these countries began about that time, maybe sooner, perhaps along with exchanges of agricultural experiences. Its use in Japan increased considerably between the 3rd and 8th centuries CE, the rise credited to returning Buddhist missionaries who had studied in China for some time.

In Japan, the first written mention of soybeans was in 712 CE. In the Nara and Heian periods, respectively, (710 to 749 and 795 to 1185 CE), Japanese Buddhists, whose religion forbids consumption of animal flesh, used soybeans in many ways. They considered this a temple food. As such, they brought soybeans and later tofu, from the temple to the bowls of the common man. Thereafter, in Japan the use of tofu increased appreciably; the reason, a very popular 1782 book: Tofu HyAkuchin or The 100 Flowers of Tofu that outlined preparation and manufacture.

Extensive research into the early history of tofu has been done by a Japanese sinologist, Osamu Shinoda. He is credited with finding the earliest written Chinese reference in a document Tao Ku, written some time between 900-999 C.E., in the Ch'ing I Lu. An unpublished manuscript, circa 1183, is the earliest known written reference to this food item in Japan. This manuscript, also located by Shinoda, is a diary of a Shinto priest of the Kasuga shrine in Nara, Japan. It was written with the characters 'to' (for the T'ang dynasty, 618 - 907 CE) and 'fu' (for mark, sign). This may be when the name tofu became popular.

The first western reference is credited to John Saris who mentions tofu in a log of a trip to Japan, circa 1613. In 1665, Friar Domingo Navarrette told Europeans about this 'common and cheap sort of food ... eaten by the Emperor and the meanest Chinese.' His early European reference is to tofu and its manufacture. The well-known Swedish biologist, Carl Linnaeus also wrote about this legume, he listed soybeans in an inventory of plants grown in Holland in 1737.

You may think American interest in soybeans is a 20th century phenomena; it is not. Records show Samuel Bowen planting the bean near Savannah, Georgia in 1765. Benjamin Franklin wrote of them in a letter to John Bartram, dated 1770 and described how to make tofu. This letter, published in A. H. Smyth's Writings of Benjamin Franklin, documents that he sent some along with planting and cheesemaking (meaning tofu preparation) advice.

The above references are but a few of the more than one hundred written records outside China, pre-1900. A post 1900 item of interest, is that tofu was first manufactured commercially in the United States in 1915 by the Quang Hop Company in San Francisco's Chinatown. Should you visit that city, this company founded in 1906, still exists.

Many decades after soybeans were introduced to the United States, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) published the first agricultural bulletin devoted to soybeans (1899). One person responsible for this interest was William J. Morse. He helped develop the soybean industry encouraging Americans to grow and use them. Morse worked for the USDA, wrote numerous articles about the planting and manufacturing of soybeans, wrote a classic book, The Soybean with Dr Charles Piper, and founded the American Soybean Association.

Clearly, people listened to Morse and others because more than half of the world's one hundred million tons of soybeans are grown in the United States. Growers call them a 'Cinderella crop' while economists refer to them either as America's 'balance of payments' or as the 'queen of the commodity exchange.'

Did you know that soybeans are an important oil source that makes up one-fourth of the world's supply of fats and oils. As a bean and as the oil, they have great export value. This is important because the United States uses only a small percent of this crop for human consumption and a reasonable amount for fodder.

After 1900, soy product use was expanded. One interesting story is that of a Dr. Harry Miller who encouraged the Chinese to drink more soy milk and more specifically to feed it to their babies. With his son, he set up the world's first soy dairy. It was in Shanghai, the year 1936. They sold soy milk in various flavors and it became very popular. Unfortunately, some months later, the plant was destroyed by bombs, after which, the Millers returned to Ohio where they began another soy milk dairy.

Speaking of interesting items, did you know that Henry Ford developed and encouraged American use of soybeans. He supported both industrial and food usage. One example is that in 1935, one bushel of soybeans was used in the manufacture of every Ford automobile, incorporated into the plastic.

Today, soybeans and the curd made from them are used in many processes, most related to foods. While its use is not mainstream, there is increased use among non-Orientals. This can be credited in large part to William Shurtleff and his wife, Akiko Aoyagi. They helped the Americans appreciate this inexpensive and versatile protein source.

Shurtleff is a leading authority on the soybean. His personal interest and commitment to its use inspired him to develop the Soyfoods Center in Lafayette, California and to design a database called 'Soyascan.' This database has thousands of references about the soy bean from 950 CE to the present. A few recent additions to Soyascan were located in my own cookbook collection. Shurtleff read about it in a volume I authored: Chinese Cookbooks; an Annotated English Language Compendium/bibliography. From these cookbooks, I was able to advise him of the first English-language cookbook with a recipe for making tofu. It was in The Chinese Cook Book by Chan Shiu Wong published in New York in 1917. Shurtleff's name may be familiar. It should be because he and his wife wrote several volumes including one that sold thousands and thousands of copies, The Book of Tofu. It is a valuable tome that includes history, manufacture and five hundred recipes, most from Japan, some from China, Korea and Taiwan.

Each day, tofu, the traditional backbone of oriental cuisine, gains new devotees. Not quite as often, new products are designed for its use including ice cream. One brand, 'Tofutti' is quite popular. Informants advise that it has been franchised in Russia, and there and here it is both profitable and popular.

It should be noted that the idea of freezing bean curd is not new. Iced Bean Curd is one of Yuan Mei's recipes from the Xi Yuan Cookery Book written near the end of the 18th century. This book, by a poet, government official and author, has more than three hundred recipes; a few are about doufu. Be aware that the Iced Bean Curd recipe is meant to be served hot; the doufu in it is first frozen, then after a textural change, is prepared for use.

Be it doufu or tofu, it is here to stay. It is used in ice cream, as an iced dessert, in items like bread, wafers, and chocolate chip cookies, and in dozens of entrees from lasagna to meatloaf; it is even used in some cheesecakes. In addition, it is found in non-food products from shampoos to soaps. When pressed, the 'curds of cheese' have lots of popularity be they called beancurd, tofu, doufu, age (deep fried tofu), yaki-dofu (grilled tofu), yuba (bean curd sheets), oboro (soft curds), or ganmo (tofu burgers). No matter the language (many of the above are Japanese), in the year 1990, the sales of tofu and related products exceeded five hundred million dollars in the United States alone. They have risen each year since.

The bean curd vendor, called 'a poor man with a good heart,'and the beautiful but poor girl called ' beancurd beauty,' are names used in China; in America and in other Western nations, the name clearly is: 'miracle in the marketplace.'

Should you want to try your hand at making beancurd, try the following recipe:

Home-made Bean Curd
2 cups dried soy beans (about a pound)
1 heaping Tablespoon Epsom salts (or use Nigeri or another coagulant)
1. Soak the beans in eight to ten cups of water overnight.
2. Rinse well. (You can pour off the soaking liquid and use it for soup, it is high in nutrients.)
3. Take one cup of beans and 3 cups of cold water and put in a blender, liquify this and repeat until all the soaked beans are made into liquid pulp.
4. Mix the Epsom salts or other coagulant with 1/4 cup warm water to dissolve it.
5. Boil the pulpy water for three minutes. Remove from the heat and let the temperature cool to about 190 degrees F. then slowly stir in the dissolved coagulant water. Let this rest 10-15 minutes.
6. Gently pour through a double layer of cheesecloth, squeeze the curd very, very gently then mold it to shape and let drain two hours. If you want a firmer curd, put a light weight (wrapped in plastic wrap) on the cheesecloth wrapped curd.
7. Cut into squares and gently place them into a glass or ceramic container filled with cold water.
Keep in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Note: Store beancurd in the refigerator and change the water daily. Keep it tightly covered and it will stay about three or four days. If each time you change the water you add a little non-iodized salt (i.e.: kosher salt) to it, then it can stay a week.

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