The Korea Herald


My obsession with tofu


Published : May 21, 2010 - 15:34

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I have a confession to make. I am obsessed -- with tofu! Of all the new ingredients that my time in Korea has introduced me to, this one is my hands-down favorite.

Sadly, not everyone shares my ardor for this soy-based wonder ingredient. A friend of mine returned from Sweden last week to announce that he was served tofu in-flight and could not understand “what the big deal is.” He wanted to know why people are so excited about eating it, other than for the many health benefits.

I explained that it is unfortunate that tofu is now mass-produced, which means preservatives are added and it is no longer fresh. I also explained that people are beginning to realize that fresh tofu is ten times better as far as flavor and texture are concerned.

He invited me to dinner and asked if I would take him to a restaurant that served fresh tofu. He was surprised at how delicious it was. At another, more intimate dinner, I introduced him to my own version of tofu, broiled and brushed with ginseng-infused olive oil.

“Mmm, I finally get what all the fuss is about!” he exclaimed between bites. Mission accomplished!

The word tofu is rooted in the Japanese word tōfu, which was derived from the Chinese word doufu. Another word for tofu is bean curd, a term which has been in use since 1840. The first name for tofu in Japan was okabe. It became known as tofu in the Muromachi era, around 1392. 

Tofu, made from soymilk, is one of the most versatile foods in Asian cuisine, and it’s now widely used by vegans, vegetarians, and health-conscious Westerners. Tofu is incredibly nutritious and can be used to make all manner of foods, including donuts and other desserts. It can be added to soups and salad dressings; it can be grilled, fried, stir-fried, topped with many different sauces and condiments, and new recipes featuring tofu are constantly popping up. Because tofu has very little flavor and odor, it can be used in both savory and sweet dishes. The possible uses of marinades and seasonings are endless, and tofu can suit pretty much any dish you wish to use it in. In Korea, firm tofu is cubed, pan-fried, and seasoned with soy sauce and other ingredients. Westerners use firm tofu to make kebabs, meat dishes, soups, and desserts.

Soymilk is made by soaking, grinding, boiling, and straining dried soybeans. Tofu is made just as if one were making cheese, with variations in the methods. It’s made by coagulating soymilk and pressing the resulting curds into a cheesecloth type of material to remove the water.

The three processes used to make tofu utilize salts, acids, and enzymes. Salt and acid methods are used commercially. The enzyme method is currently not, but it has potential. The calcium sulfate (salt method) is the most traditional method, and tofu can be made into three types depending on how much water is removed. Soft or silken tofu contains high levels of moisture, and it is similar to custard in consistency. Firm tofu is drained of most of the water, but still contains some moisture. It is similar to the texture of firm custard. Dry tofu is similar to cooked meat in firmness and has the least amount of water.

Tofu dates back to China around 2,000 years ago. Tofu was first introduced to Japan during the Nara era around A.D. 761-793. Theories abound as to the specific origin of tofu. One theory is that it was invented in northern China during the Han Dynasty around B.C. 164; another is that it is of Mongolian origin. With the quick spread of Buddhism, the use of tofu also became widespread, since the Buddhist diet is vegetarian. Tofu is a great source of protein, which is required for a healthy body.

The uses of tofu did not become popular in the West until the middle of the 20th century. With the advent of the Internet, global communication became a normal part of life, allowing many foods from around the world to enter a new international arena. Tofu is now one of the most popular health foods in the world, thanks to its versatility and health benefits.

Tofu is low in saturated fats with no cholesterol and a mere 147 calories per 250 grams. One serving is equal to a hamburger in protein content, and has the same amount of calcium as 250 milliliters of milk. The American Heart Association has stated that tofu is beneficial to cardiovascular health because it has high levels of polyunsaturated fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and is low in saturated fat.

Tofu, simmered and grilled

2 cups vegetable broth

3 sheets roasted seaweed, 5x9 cm each

¼ cup soy sauce

390 grams firm tofu

2 tablespoons olive oil infused with ginseng (see recipe below)

10 12cm-long wooden skewers

1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

Combine broth and seaweed in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer over high heat. Immediately remove from heat. Strain broth into another saucepan. Set aside.

Line a medium baking sheet with foil. Cut tofu into 5 x 2 x 2 cm pieces. Add to broth and simmer over medium-low heat for about 8 minutes to flavor tofu. Remove tofu carefully with slotted spoon and place on prepared baking sheet. Cool tofu. Brush with olive oil infused with ginseng.

Preheat broiler, insert skewer through center of tofu. Repeat with remaining tofu and skewers. Brush tops of tofu with oil. Place foil over exposed portion of skewers to prevent burning. Broil for about 4 minutes, watching closely to prevent burning. Remove foil and place on platter. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serve about four as an appetizer.

Ginseng-infused olive oil

180 grams ginseng, cleaned, peeled and sliced vertically

300 ml olive oil

2 chili peppers

Heat oil in microwave until warm. Add ginseng and peppers. Place in jar and let sit for a week to allow ginseng to infuse the oil.

Note: Refrigerate the jar.

By Samia Mounts (

Samia Mounts is a long-time nutritionist and gourmet aficionado. She is the Assistant principal at Seoul American Elementary School.