A few years ago, I tasted tofu for the first time. I expected the soft, spongy, soybean cubes to initiate a carnival of melting flavors in my mouth. But after the first bite, I was disappointed—left without the slightest of sensations in my taste buds and confused because the chunks of white tofu remained bland and dry despite being lathered in sauce. I remember thinking that it was simply a sad, watered-down substitute for meat.
Fast forward to present day; several restaurants, both vegan and non-vegan, have added the soy protein to their menus, and recipes such as tofu pizza waffles are making appearances on TikTok. From vegan, Popeye-style fried chicken, to smoothies, to lime mousse—tofu has risen to prominence.
Although the exact origination of tofu remains a mystery, one of four common theories suggest that tofu was invented by accident in Northern China when someone seasoned a pureed soybean soup with sea salt and noticed that curds formed, according to Soy Info Center. Tofu’s literal translation from Japanese is “bean curd.” Tofu, the end product of coagulation of soy milk, arrived in America with Chinese and Japanese immigrants, who then sold tofu at oriental stores.
In the thick of the global COVID-19 pandemic, people started adding new hobbies to their lifestyles and new ingredients to their shopping carts—tofu being one of them. Roughly 3 million Americans consumed five or more packages of tofu in 2020, according to Statista. Nielsen data shows that tofu sales increased 40% in first half of 2020 as compared to 2019. In 2020, the soy product had a global market size of $2.24 billion.
Leigh Lockhart, owner of Main Squeeze, a mainstay of vegan food in Columbia, says that even though her restaurant has been open for 25 years—and she’s been a vegan for longer—it took a while for her to warm up to the taste of tofu. That's similar to how it took 15 years for the city to warm up to Main Squeeze, she says. “We were kind of an oddity,” Lockhart says. “People thought we were kind of a weird place if you didn't eat that way.”
Gina Overshiner, vegan since 2015 and owner of food truck Gina’s Vegan A Go Go, agrees. “I think that tofu is really misunderstood by a lot of people,” she says, adding that several people don't like tofu their first try.
Giving Tofu A Second Chance
Regardless of it being misunderstood by some people, the tofu trend caught on. With concerns of COVID-19 cases at meatpacking plants and noticeable shifts to environment-friendly habits, people began looking for meat alternatives. Another motivation is personal health. Studies show that plant-based eating may help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as provide other health benefits.
Tofu—accessible, affordable and a very versatile plant protein—is standing out on grocery shelves. “You can turn it into a chicken-type product, you can marinate it, you can fry it and curl it,” says Lockhart, who serves tofu bacon at her eatery. Overshiner’s favorite is a soy-based stir fry with tofu that she makes for her children. “Mommy tofu,” as her children call it, is sprinkled with a dash of nutritional yeast, nicknamed “hippie dust," to add a cheesy flavor.
Lockhart says people have started looking for alternatives to tofu now, as their food exploration continues. “I would call tofu a gateway to plant-based eating,” she says.
A few months ago, I ate tofu again with some friends at Jina Yoo’s Asian Bistro. Although I was reluctant, I was influenced by the fact that tofu had in fact become trendy and my friends had become major tofu proponents. Jina Yoo, known for amalgamating American and Asian cuisines through her dishes and touted as mid-Missouri’s “queen of Asian fine dining,” ascended to our table. She spoke to us about her culinary experiences as we stuffed our mouths full with her delicious tofu steak—smoked, sauced and tossed in wild mushrooms.