The History of Tofu Is Anything but Bland

Did you know that tofu was once thought to be food for ghosts? That’s one legend attached to its origins, at least. Created during the Han Dynasty some two thousand years ago, the soybean product was considered an ideal meal for the dearly-departed because it’s soft and ghosts (obviously) don’t have strong jaws. And what if I told you that tofu’s hold on America’s hippie culture was thanks to a cult leader who thought he could telepathically communicate with animals? On this week’s Gastropod, hosts Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber explore the history of tofu, which — despite Western assumptions about flavor — is anything but bland.

So how did tofu make the jump from northeastern China to the Western world in the first place? It’s largely thanks to Li Yuying, also known by his honorary name Li Shizeng, who was sent to France by the Qing Dynasty to steal military secrets in the early 1900s. It turns out that Li made a terrible spy because — as is the case in all good stories of espionage — he fell in love. Not with a person, but with France and later, again with the soybean.

After dropping out of French military school, Li would eventually study at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where he conducted in-depth research on all things soy. Later, he founded Usine de la Caséo-Sojaïne — the Tofu Manufacturing Co. — just outside of Paris. It was Europe’s first tofu manufacturer. (He also became an ardent anarchist and vegetarian, who used his company to provide jobs for Chinese students to help cover tuition while they studied in Paris.)

Li Yuying’s vision of soy-ful future ultimately didn’t grab hold of the French diet and the Tofu Manufacturing Co. closed after a couple decades. (Not a bad run, though, right?) His research and efforts, however, did introduce a new portion of the world to soybean products, contributing to tofu’s current status as an international food staple, celebrated not just as filler or vehicle for seasoning, but something with it’s own unique and delicate flavors.

Whether or not it’s still a favorite of ghosts? You’ll have to summon one to ask.

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