Tofu in the Empire of China.
The earliest mention of tofu in English is said to be in a letter written on January 11, 1770 by Benjamin Franklin (living in London at the time), to his friend John Bartram in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The word ‘tofu’ (or any of its variants) does not appear in the article however - Franklin refers to the product as ‘cheese.’
… I send you however some of the true rhubarb seed, which you desire. I had it from Mr. English, who lately received a medal of the Society of Arts for propagating it. I send also some green dry peas, highly esteemed here as the best for making pea soup; and also some Chinese caravances [soy beans], with Father Navarrete's account of the universal use of a cheese made of them in China, which so excited my curiosity, that I caused inquiry to be made of Mr. Flint, who lived many years there, in what manner the cheese was made, and I send you his answer. I have since learned, that some runnings of salt (I suppose runnet) is put into water, when the meal is in it, to turn it to curds. I think we have caravances with us, but I know not whether they are the same with these, which actually came from China. They are said to be of great increase.
As far as the Oxford English Dictionary is concerned, the word tofu (‘a curd made in Japan and China from mashed soya beans’) first appears in English in 1880, in the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan:
Tôfu is made by pounding the soy beans after soaking in water.
One of the difficulties in researching the English-language ‘first mentions’ of a foodstuff originating in a non-English-speaking country of course is the phonetic transcription of the unfamiliar word by early visitors and writers - which frequently results in a large number of spelling variations in English.
One early European who did come across tofu in his travels was Thomas Astley, who visited China in the 1740’s, and mentioned the strange ‘paste of kidney beans’ in the subsequent narrative of his journey. This was published in 1747 as A New General Collection of Voyages and Travels ... in Europe, Asia, Africa and America ..., Also the Manners and Customs of the Several Inhabitants ... He refers to the product as Teu Feu – a spelling which did not make it into the OED.
In the chapter entitled The Empire of China, Astley writes:
Though there is Corn [i.e wheat] every where in China, yet they generally live upon Rice, especially in the Southern Parts: They even make small Loaves of it, which in less than fifteen Minutes are prepared in the Steam of a Pot, and eaten very soft. The Europeans bake them a little at the Fire, which makes them very light and delicious. In the Province of Shan-tong, they make a kind of thin wheaten Cake, which does not taste amiss, especially when mixed with certain Herbs, for creating an Appetite. Beside the common Herbs, Roots, and Pulse, they have many others, not known in Europe, and more valuable than ours; which, in Conjunction with Rice, make the chief Food of the People everywhere.
Navarette observes, that the most common and cheap Food, all China over, is called Teu Feu, that is, Paste of Kidney-Beans. They draw the Milk out of the Beans, and, turning it, make great Cakes of it like Cheeses, five or six Inches thick: The whole Mass is as white as Snow. If eaten crude, it is insipid; but when boiled, and dressed with Herbs, Fish, and other Things, as it generally is, it proves very good, and is excellent fried in Butter. They have it also dried and smoked, mixed with Carraway-Seeds: which is best of all. It is incredible what vast Quantities of it are consumed, it being eaten by all People, from the Emperor and great Men, who reckon it a Dainty, to the meanest Peasant. Many will leave Pullets for it: One may have a Pound (which is above twenty Ounces) any where, for a Halfpenny and because one who eats it finds no Alteration from the different Air and Seasons, those who travel make use of it.
As the recipe for the day, I give you an entirely non-Chinese take on Chinese food, from Chinese Cook Book: in Plain English (Morris, Illinois; 1917) by Vernon Galster (Price $1.00)
EGGS FO YOUNG
For Two Portions
¼ POUND CHINESE CURED PORK (Cut into fine shreds.)
(See page 4 for recipe for curing pork.)
½ CUP BAMBOO SHOOT (Cut into fine, long shreds.)
4 CHINESE WATER CHESNUTS (Pared and cut into fine shreds.)
½ CUP CELERY (Cut into fine, long shreds.)
1 STEM OF GREEN ONION TOP (Cut small.)
1 TEASPOONFUL CHINESE SALTY SAUCE.
Mix all of the above into a batter (don't stir too much) and fry into six oval omelets or cakes on a low flame. When done, make a gravy by putting into the lard in which the cakes were fried in, a cupful of water, a half teaspoonful of
Chinese sweet sauce and a teaspoonful of cornstarch.
To serve, place 3 cakes for each portion on a flat chop suey dish and cover with the gravy. Serve with bowl of rice (cooked Chinese style) and Chinese tea.
It has come up multiple times in my cookbook collection; just yesterday I picked up a book of regional Chinese cuisine from the 1970s that has several "names" and descriptions of the cheese made from soybeans, but the word tofu (or any other spelling thereof) does not appear. Their "helpful" names sometimes create more confusion! (Reminds me of the "Mexican green tomatoes" from another cookbook that I think means tomatillos, a very different beast than green tomatoes.)
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