Did you know that tofu was once considered ghost food? It is at least a legend attached to its origins. Created during the Han Dynasty around two thousand years ago, the soy product was considered an ideal meal for the deceased because it is sweet and ghosts (obviously) do not have strong jaws. What if I told you that tofu’s hold on American hippie culture was due to a cult leader who thought he could communicate telepathically with animals? On this week’s Gastéropod, hosts Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber explore the history of tofu, which – despite Western assumptions about the flavor – is anything but bland.
So how did tofu make the leap from northeast China to the western world in the first place? This is in large part 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 spy stories – he fell in love. Not with one person, but with France and later, again with soy.
After dropping out of French military school, Li will eventually study at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, where he conducted extensive research on everything related to soy. He later founded the Usine de la Caséo-Sojaïne – the Tofu Manufacturing Co. – just outside of Paris. It was the first tofu maker in Europe. (He also became a ardent anarchist and vegetarian, who used his company to provide jobs for Chinese students to cover tuition fees while they studied in Paris.)
Li Yuying’s vision for a soy-rich future ultimately did not overtake the French diet, and the Tofu Manufacturing Co. closed after a few decades. (It’s not a bad race, is it?) His research and efforts, however, introduced a new part of the world into soy products, contributing to the current status of tofu as a food. International staple, celebrated not only as a filler or seasoning. , but something with its own unique and delicate flavors.
Whether or not it’s still a ghost favorite? You will need to summon one to request.