History Stories

The Chinese, who first invented or discovered soy bean curd, call it “doufu.” The Japanese, who adopted it hundreds of years later, use the term “tofu,” as do many Americans. As for myself, I rarely cook doufu/tofu at home, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like it. I order it frequently in Asian restaurants because I enjoy the variety of tastes and textures. Plain bean curd, a great source of protein and vitamins, provides a healthy vehicle for a stunning array of preparations and sauces.

My favorite traditional Szechuan dish is mapo doufu—bean curd cooked with minced pork or beef, red chilies and lots of other spices. I have two reasons for this allegiance. First of all, the evocative name: Mapo doufu means “pockmarked grandma’s bean curd,” although it is sometimes translated into the mundane “country-style bean curd,” which sounds hearty but bland. Second, mapo doufu is delicious. I can remember the first time I had it—with my Chinese history professor in Boston’s Chinatown. At that point in my life, I had only eaten westernized Cantonese, plus I thought I didn’t like spicy food, so mapo doufu was a revelation.

Tofu has a long, impressive history in China. As early as 1600 B.C., the ancient Chinese cultivated soy beans, which remain a vital source of protein and other nutrients throughout Asia today. During the Han Dynasty (between 206 B.C. and 220 A.D., about the same time as the Roman empire’s glory days), the Chinese production of bean curd became widespread. Eventually, Buddhist monks brought soy beans and recipes for bean curd to Japan.

It took a long time for tofu to come to the United States. Samuel Bowen, a well-traveled sailor, settled down near Savannah, Georgia, and planted soybeans for his employer in 1765. The approach of the American Revolution stymied this enterprise. But a few years later, tofu had another early champion in America: a man remembered as a scientist, diplomat, writer, editor, postmaster, signer of the Constitution and true character who liked to take air baths naked. That’s right—Ben Franklin. In 1770 Franklin sent soybeans (which he called “Chinese caravances”) back from France to his friend John Bartram, a famous botanist, exclaiming in his letter about a “special cheese” made from the beans “which is called Tau Fu.”

Dr. Libby O’Connell is HISTORY’s chief historian.

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