Food

Everything you need to know about tofu and how Chinese people eat it

Jun 24, 2019

In the West, the concept of tofu is quite narrow.

On average, it’s very firm, and often used as a meat alternative or drenched in a generic Asian sauce for stir-fry.

The firm tofu that one might find at a Western supermarket.
The firm tofu that one might find at a Western supermarket. / Photo: Shutterstock

But in China, where tofu is one of the most consumed food products, the diversity—in terms of texture, flavor, and form—is parallel to that of cheese.

A case in point is the recipe for mapo tofu 麻婆豆腐, a spicy pork-based tofu dish by way of Sichuan province. It varies differently in China and the West.

Mapo tofu recipes in the West call for firm tofu. Recipes in China insist on soft, silken tofu, practically pudding-like, with just enough resistance that it can be picked up with a chopstick without turning to mush.

Mapo tofu made with firm bean curd (left) vs. more pillowy tofu.
Mapo tofu made with firm bean curd (left) vs. more pillowy tofu. / Photo: Shutterstock

I’ve found that in China, the preferred texture is this pillowy, delicate form.

But even then, there’s an entire range of tofu in China—both plain and fermented—that remains largely undetected by the West.

And as with many old and aged cheeses, understanding them is an acquired taste, even within China, where there are esoteric soy products specific to geography that most non-locals haven’t even heard of.

This primer will walk you through the wide diversity of tofu out there and why it should rightfully be called the cheese of China.

The basics: How tofu is made

Before I begin, let me preface by saying that there is cheese in China. The border provinces of Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Yunnan are ripe with dairy products made from sheep, yak, and even horse milk.

And with globalization, dairy has become more commonplace. Domestic production of cow-based milk products has been soaring since the late 1970s.

But compared to tofu, cheese is far from mainstream. Much of that owes to DNA. Up to 90% of adults in East Asian communities are lactose intolerant, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Some might argue that soy and dairy products are not analogous. I disagree.

That doesn’t mean Chinese cuisine isn’t without its own milk-like and cheese-esque products, soy milk and tofu being chief among them.

Some might argue that soy and dairy products are not analogous. I disagree.

Like dairy products, the soybean is versatile and protein-rich. It was domesticated in China over 3,000 years ago and can be used to make oil, flour, sauce, and milk.

The milk is where tofu comes from.

Add a coagulant to soy milk, and you get tofu of varying degrees of firmness, depending on how much coagulant and what type is used. (Side note: Cheese is also made by coagulating animal milk).

On the softest end of the spectrum is tofu pudding, or douhua 豆花, which has the consistency of flan.

Tofu pudding with ginger-flavored sugar on top.
Tofu pudding with ginger-flavored sugar on top. / Photo: South China Morning Post

In Hong Kong, it’s often seasoned with a dollop of ginger-flavored sugar to give it a sweet and slightly spicy kick.

On the firmer end of the spectrum is bean curd, which has the texture preferred in the West.

The next level: Stinky tofu and all its fermented cousins

Put a piece of tofu in brine or inoculate it with a spore, and you’ve unlocked all of the possibilities of fermented tofu.

This is where tofu gets the most cheesy.

The province of Anhui is known for its hairy tofu—and it’s exactly what its name suggests: tofu with wisps of white hair growing out of it.

Hairy tofu is a specialty of Anhui Province.
Hairy tofu is a specialty of Anhui Province. / Photo: Nathaniel Brown

The hair is actually mycelium, a vegetative growth that results when fungal spores are inoculated into tofu. As the spores multiply, the hairs take over, and the tofu block gets dense and creamy until it takes on the texture of blue cheese (Blue Stilton, if you want to get specific).

In parts of Anhui, they’ll coat tofu blocks with an egg wash and deep-fry it before seasoning it with chili, garlic, and dark soy sauce (also made, by the way, from fermented soybeans).

Hairy tofu deep-fried with an egg wash.
Hairy tofu deep-fried with an egg wash. / Photo: Nathaniel Brown

Other places will take it a step further and lacto-ferment small cubes of hairy tofu in a jar with chili, salt, and other spices for months until it becomes even more dense, like butter.

At this point, the aroma begins to turn a bit funky. It’s earthy but piquant, like cured meat, and I adore it.

The end product is doufuru 豆腐乳, sometimes (almost simplistically) called tofu cheese. It makes for a fantastic spread across blank canvases like steamed mantou 馒头 or rice porridge. Think of it as soft Brie on crackers.

In coastal provinces like Jiangsu and Fujian, they like to add fermented red rice in the jar, which creates a sweeter finale.

And true to form, the spice-loving province of Sichuan likes to throw in a generous heaping of chili flakes.

Finally, we get to perhaps the most famous variation of fermented tofu: stinky tofu.

Stinky tofu at a night market in Taiwan.
Stinky tofu at a night market in Taiwan. / Photo: Shutterstock

The dish gets its name from its strong odor, which some have compared to the smell of gym socks, though others think it’s not really that bad. The taste is like that of a strong Camembert, with a robust savory bite.

Today, Taiwan, by sheer marketing prowess, is the epicenter of stinky tofu. It’s generally made by soaking tofu in brine.

There are vastly different recipes depending on who’s making it. I’ve heard of some shops using dried shrimp shells.

Unlike doufuru, the texture of stinky tofu doesn’t change that much post-fermentation, but the aroma and taste are altered by the brine.

A stinky tofu vendor in Hong Kong.
A stinky tofu vendor in Hong Kong. / Photo: South China Morning Post

In mainland China, there’s even more regional diversity in stinky tofu.

Hunan Province’s version is black, owing to the black soybeans used to make the tofu. And Shaoxing’s variety is made with the liquid of rotting amaranth stalks.

Deep-fried black tofu is a specialty of Hunan.
Deep-fried black tofu is a specialty of Hunan. / Photo: Shutterstock

Soybeans have been called the “cow of China” for its high protein content and versatility. With so many varieties of tofu out there, the firm kind we’re used to in the West is just scratching the surface of what’s possible with this dynamic food product.

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Credit

Producer and Voiceover: Clarissa Wei

Videographers: Nathaniel Brown and Clarissa Wei

Editor: Joel Roche

Mastering: Victor Peña