Why the Tofu You’re Eating is Bland (It’s Not Your Fault)

March 17, 2016

Think back to the first time you tried tofu. ...Are you cringing yet?

Minh Tsai, founder, director, and CEO of the Oakland-based beanery Hodo Soy, would guess that your initial experience was negative. After all, even Mollie Katzen—a cookbook author whose 1974 work The Moosewood Cookbook put her at the forefront of the vegetarian movement—"remembers serving tofu to people who were spitting it out because they couldn’t adjust."

Maybe you grabbed a cube of extra-firm tofu from a salad bar; maybe you requested a vegetarian option at a restaurant and were presented with a "steak" that took up half your plate; maybe you tried to stir-fry it at home and were left with something spongy or tasteless or dry or water-logged. “This [bland, commoditized tofu] is not tofu,” says Tsai: “It’s chalky. It doesn’t have taste. It doesn’t have flavor.” Across the various textures and brands widely available at grocery stores, tofu all tastes like the same sort of nothingness—to the point that most of us think this is way tofu has to be.

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How did we get to this place? How did tofu—which, at its best and freshest, is sweet and nutty, fragrant and earthy, creamy or silky or springy or jiggly—come to be this way? And why do so few U.S. consumers experience it in its best state?

The story goes back to the mid-1970s, a time Tsai marks as the beginning of the second wave of tofu in the U.S. The food, of course, had existed in this country for decades before that, prepared and consumed in the communities of Chinese and Japanese immigrants who came to this country in the mid-19th century. Though documented in print for the first time in 1896 in the American Journal of Pharmacy, tofu was rarely eaten outside of immigrant enclaves for the greater part of the 20th century.

Ninety-nine years later, however, in the midst of the environmental movement, a book—the book—came out that would change all of that. William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi's The Book of Tofu "deserves the credit for introducing tofu to the Western world," says Tsai. The subtitle on the cover reads "Protein Source of the Future...NOW!," a clear indication of the book's thesis.

A former Peace Corps volunteer in East Africa, Shurtleff was concerned, as Tsai summarized, with "feeding people and [preserving] the environment rather than [with] taste and health," and his writing reflects a growing concern of the time that land for the production of meat protein was running out. "I want soyfood to be the most important source of protein in the world," Shurtleff told People magazine in 1980, with the ultimate goal of making soy the practical, low-cost protein source in developing countries.

The "meat-centered diet makes very inefficient use of the earth’s ability to provide human beings with protein," writes Shurtleff in the introduction. In a chapter called "Tofu as a Food," he delves into the nutritional benefits of soyfoods, detailing the percent protein by weight of tofu, yuba, and soybeans compared to hamburger, beef, cottage cheese, and eggs, always referring to the thousands-year-old practices in the East.

When looking for alternate sources of protein and when considering the benefits of a meatless way of eating, many people ask: "What will we use to replace meat?" Some experiment with eggs and dairy products, or with soybeans and grains. The traditional answer throughout East Asia has been tofu.

And so tofu was introduced to audiences in the U.S. more as a pragmatic meat substitute than a delicious ingredient—an image it did not have in its regions of origin. While Shurtleff references East Asian proverbs and poems that name tofu as the "meat of the fields" and "meat without a bone," tofu has not traditionally been seen as a meat replacement in China or Japan.

It's "never eaten as a purely vegetarian food in Asia," explained Tsai (an example: ma po tofu, made of tofu and ground pork). Similarly, when Chris Kim, co-founder of Monk's Meats, which specializes in vegan protein products like seitan and uses Hodo Soy products, was growing up in a Korean-American household, he ate meat and tofu, oftentimes together: Tofu was "not a meat substitute, but [...] another food that’s like rice. My dad would make us tofu and beef and vegetables all mixed together in a stir-fry. It was just another element of dishes we had.”

It was this branding of tofu as a meat stand-in that, inadvertently, was its taste downfall. Shurtleff's early readers sought out tofu in Japantowns and Chinatowns, but with no packaged options on the market, they instead found jiggly blocks in large tubs of water—"nothing meat-like about them," says Tsai. Mollie Katzen, who discovered tofu for herself on the West Coast in the early 1970s, remembers how "the main kind of tofu that was available at that time most closely resembles silken tofu now."

And when these shoppers took the tofu home and treated it like meat, they were disappointed. "I wanted to make a tofu snack," recalls Katzen. "I wanted to get a different texture." With few, if any, American cookbooks to reference—neither Anna Thomas's The Vegetarian Epicure and Frances Moore Lappé's Diet for a Small Planet, which Katzen cites as her largest influences, included recipes for tofu—Katzen had to learn through trial, error, and hours at the stove, trying to make her cornstarch-coated tofu crunchy: "It was so insane. For hours, I'm trying; the tofu is shrinking; I'm slowly evaporating the water and it's turning into a liquid mess. Nothing was crisping up." (Katzen's 1982 book The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, with its page called "What is this thing called tofu?" brought tofu—in the form of what Katzen admits to be hippie-ish recipes—to American households who still were not familiar with the ingredient.)

It was the frustration and confusion of American consumers, Tsai theorizes, that led companies in the 80s to innovate, to produce the firm and extra-firm tofus, that he calls “pretty much Western inventions. They eat firm tofu in Asia, but it is aged, dried, or braised for the sake of shelf life. It is made drier and firmer for the purpose of preservation." For Americans who expected a "central hunk of protein" the only way to reconcile the removal of meat from the plate—the only way to normalize a vegetarian diet—was through "the swap mentality," as Katzen sees it: "Swap out the meat, swap in something." And the most logical something was tofu.

Soon after the publication of Shurtleff's book, hundreds of tofu beaneries had cropped up; People magazine estimated that the number of U.S. tofu manufacturers had exceeded 170 by 1980. But most of these did not last, and with this narrowing of the industry, tofu innovation slowed significantly.

Whatever the reason—be it the concern and confusion surrounding the health impacts of soy; the powerful meat and dairy industries who feared that soyfoods were encroaching on their markets; the introduction of soy protein isolates and mock meats; the strict health and sanitation requirements beaneries must meet; the labor and equipment required to produce tofu—many of these small beaneries shuttered in the 90s, and only a handful of the larger tofu producers (like Wildwood and House Foods on the West Coast, Nasoya on the East) remained. Many of these big tofu producers, says Tsai, are themselves owned by large conglomerates in Japan and Korea that do not produce tofu in those countries.

As Minh sees it, the current environment—big, consolidated businesses competing with each other for the business of supermarket chains—does not incentivize improvements in taste or texture. The "decision process for these big companies is quite long—innovation is not fast; they are not nimble, and they need approval from big parent companies overseas." As health concerns surrounding tofu have dissipated, the market has returned, and these companies are "making money selling what they're selling," giving them little motivation to improve: "They don't need to take risks and innovation and introduce products that may or may not be successful in the marketplace."

In its tasteless, squished form, tofu remains stuck in its 1970s role. When little attention is given to the nuance of its flavors and textures, tofu stays pigeonholed in its position as meat substitute—not an ingredient that most people are excited about, but one that they turn to, by default, when they feel they must replace the meat on the table with something else.

And the reality of a vegetarian diet is that eaters must be more attuned to the nutritional aspects of putting a meal together. “The vegetarian consumer in the 60s and 70s gravitated towards [tofu] from a purely nutritional perspective," Kim of Monk's Meats explained. "Early vegetarian cuisine is so basic, based on whole grains and [the] fundamental nutrition [needed] to survive as a vegetarian. There wasn’t a lot of interest in making exciting dishes out of anything that was vegetarian.” Vegetarians (and vegans, even more so) must answer questions about protein sources all the time.

As part of his Kim's seitan business, he's spent a lot of time thinking about the sometimes fine distinction between meat-like substitutes and meat replacements that may not resemble beef, pork, or chicken at all: Tofu is "a meat substitute that's not meant to be meat-like, but to be a [comparable source of] protein." At Monk's Meats, Kim says, "we don't make fake meat; we make real food." If a product doesn't taste like beef it's because "it's not supposed to taste like beef—it's seitan."

The appreciation of tofu as an ingredient that's protein-rich but completely distinct from meat—an ingredient whose flavor and texture can be enjoyed in their purest state and manipulated in a countless number of interesting ways—is relatively recent in U.S. restaurants and cookbooks.

"One of things that’s helped sell tofu to the general public is when people backed off of the substitution/analog mentality," says Katzen. When you expect tofu to be a stand-in for meat, "you’re setting it up to fail. Nothing will resemble meat for those who want a substitute that’s as close as possible. [It's] not fair to tofu to put it in that position. Be open about: This is tofu. It’s high-protein, it’s mild [...] but it’s tofu. Don’t pretend it’s chicken."

"Tofu is way more acceptable [now than ever before]. It's on the spectrum of what's considered 'normal food' now because hip American cuisine—in Portland and Brooklyn—incorporates it; people take some pride in what they do with it now," Katzen has noticed. And Kim, too, has observed "a huge shift in the last couple of years. Chefs are more excited about vegan and vegetarian cuisine right now. They're realizing the possibilities of it."

And Tsai has a part in these patterns: He sells Hodo Soy products not only to small businesses like Monk's Meats, but also to massive ones like Chipotle, where you can now order meat-free tofu sofritas. His yuba is in the kitchen of Brooks Headley's restaurant Superiority Burger (the trendiest of the trendy) and in Daniel Boulud's two-Michelin-starred Daniel (the fanciest of the fancy), where chef de cuisine Eddy LeRoux serves creamy tofu skin with a braised endive, Cara Cara orange reduction, and—the ingredient that takes the dish past "vegetarian cuisine"—black sea bass.

Tofu skin is a "great alternative" for the increasing number of gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan diners, says LeRoux, but that's not the main reason it's in the kitchen: "I use it because I like the taste and I like the product: It's very rich and buttery and it's very interesting." The restaurant is developing a soymilk ice cream for the spring.

At David Chang's Italian-Asian New York restaurant Momofuku Nishi, tofu is served with smoked trout roe as an appetizer and on top of a beef shank bolognese for an entrée. As tofu starts to appear on the menus of non-vegetarian restaurants as an ingredient rather than a substitute—served both in place of and alongside meat—taste and texture will gain new importance.

Just compare Shurtleff's tofu goals—"I would be happy," he said, "if tofu replaced 30 percent of the meat in American diet"—to Tsai's: "Our goal is very straightforward and simple," says Tsai: "We've got to make it taste good so that we're [either] winning you back or convincing you to eat it for the first time. We have to win you with the first bite. And if we fail (like most market tofus do), how will you grow the customer base?"

Tomorrow, we'll hear from Minh Tsai on what makes "good tofu" good (in terms of smell, taste, and texture)—so you can know it when you see it.

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Jonathan T. May 20, 2019
This article defo needed a tl:dr. With my family, I'm trying to move over to a more veggie diet. Tried tofu tonight in a recipe, and literally can't understand why anyone would eat it rather than a plate of well cooked veg and pulses. Completely flavourless nothing food imo
Sena April 10, 2016
Thank you, HalfPint, for suggesting Salt and Pepper tofu. I am vegan and have never tried it. My hubby has learned to love tofu since we got our air fryer, but the S&P tofu sounds very tempting. Also, we have found tofu skin to be delicious and versatile. It hasn't come into its own in the US yet, but I believe it will have it's time.
JoAnne L. April 8, 2016
I've been Vegan for nearly 9 years and didn't eat or like meat very much before becoming Vegan. I agree with HalfPint, why would I or other Vegans and Vegetarians want tofu to taste like meat? To try to achieve that it is processed and filled with unhealthy additives. My favorite tofus are the artisanal ones made fresh with no preservatives in little shops. Hard to find but worth the hunt, the taste is sublime!
Greg M. March 23, 2016
Hodo Tofu is GOOD.....I'm always downing chunks between the cutting board and the pan, right after I cut it.....
paczryk March 17, 2016
Typo correction: *ma po tofu (Not ma pa).
Caroline L. March 17, 2016
so fascinating!
GsR March 17, 2016
Tofu is what happens when you let ideologues into the kitchen.
HalfPint March 17, 2016
More likely economics than ideology.
HalfPint March 17, 2016
Great article! Thank you for focusing on tofu as a separate element in cooking and not the meat substitute. Growing up in an Asian household, I could never understand why Americans expected tofu to taste like meat, no matter how much they refab-ed, extrude, or mashed up. Tofu is tofu and good in its own right. Why would you try to make it something it was not? As a vegan/vegetarian, why would you want anything to taste and feel like meat? I like to think of tofu as more of a jack-of-all-trades. It has the ability to go into a wide array of dishes, from savory to sweet. It really shines when it's treated as tofu and nothing else.. Soft silken tofu, served warm with a generous drizzle of ginger syrup is a total joy and revelation.

Side story: I was so elated when I got my tofu-hating husband to eat and LOVE Salt & Pepper Tofu (I've dubbed S&P tofu the new "gateway drug" for him).
Connor B. March 17, 2016
Soondubu jjigae is my personal favorite tofu vessel

Close second is mapo tofu, extra sichuan pepper.
702551 March 17, 2016
Tofu is like bread, it is best the day it is made. This is a big reason why most tofu sucks.

For me, it is San Jose Tofu or "no thank you." The only possible exception is a handful of restaurants that make their own tofu on the premises, otherwise forget it.
at6641 March 22, 2016
SAN JOSE TOFU. OMG I grew up on that tofu.. it seriously is the best. cheers cv