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Vegan Cheese: A Historian's Take on the War on Words (ASIAN 258)

Updated: Feb 4



What’s in a name?

That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet


-- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet


Mr. Shakespeare was admittedly not thinking about food when he wrote those lines about young love. But he should have. Roses taste great in Yunnan rose pastry.


Such quibbles aside, these three lines capture our shared conundrum. For the last few weeks, we have debated whether ‘mint bibimbap’ is ‘bibimbap’ and whether Chinese wheat noodles or sopa de fideos can be called ‘pasta.’


So now it’s time to turn our attention to a related food controversy: the thorny question of vegan cheese.


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Background as follows:


In recent years, environmental and ethical-eating activists have taken to preparing creamy camembert and ricotta with beans and almond milk. They have rolled out their pricey creations to much acclaim -- and complaints filed by lawyers with various governments.


Combatants claim it’s misleading to use ‘cheese’ for something *without* animal dairy. So vegan cheese is an oxymoron. Period.


Obviously, there’s more to it than mere labeling. The North American and European dairy industries are in financial trouble. Consumers are wary of milk; and milk drinking is down. Not surprisingly, dairy farmers are suffering. They have declared war on soy and oat “milk”: they want governments to force vegan cheese makers to call themselves something else. And they absolutely want us to eat more dairy. They would appreciate it, too, if Meghan Markle were to shut up about oat milk lattes.


I do sympathize with dairy farmers, and I adore dairy. I’ll also confess that I have no desire to try bean camembert. None whatsoever. But I disagree with the idea of reserving terms like ‘cheese,’ 'milk,' and 'butter' exclusively for animal dairy.


Why? People have been making vegan cheeses for centuries in Asia, and labeling them as such. Tofu, in fact, was once a poor man’s paneer.


Sound crazy? Obviously. We nowadays think of tofu as a vegan food, the antithesis of dairy. But if we bracket our current habits of labeling, we can see this problem in a different light. To do so, we need to think through the process. How is tofu made?


In a nutshell, the video reveals five steps:


1. Heat a milky liquid to a boil

2. Add coagulants like vinegar or salt water residue

3. Stir until curds appear

4. Strain the curds

5. Press into block


Artisanal Tofu Making (Zhuji, Zhejiang, November 2018)



If you know how paneer is made, you’ll recognize the process. The only difference is that tofu requires an additional step: You first turn the beans into soy milk by soaking and grinding them. Traditionally, this was done in a rotary grindstone (yes, the same grindstone that hobbled through the Silk Road and whose arrival in northwest China spawned noodle culture).


But apart from this step, the process is identical to cheesemaking. The similarities were so striking, in fact, that John Saris, an early 17th-century English traveler to Japan, mistook tofu for cheese. He was not alone in seeing the similarities. A Spanish missionary who lived in southeast China started calling tofu "bean cheese." He was apparently a fan of the stuff -- and liked to eat it dressed with caraway seeds and fried in butter!



Guess the curd? Dairy or Soy?


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So who got the bright idea to make cheese from beans?


We’re not exactly sure. Scholars have invested significant energies fighting about this. Some of them have overturned a centuries’ old myth that tofu was invented by a Han-dynasty prince (d. 122 BC).


After a lot of poking through old texts, the distinguished Japanese historian, Shinoda Osamu 篠田統 (1899-1978), discovered that ancient Asians didn’t do tofu. This surprised him. Like most folks, he had assumed that the Chinese had been eating tofu since time immemorial. Tofu, however, was a *recent* development and only debuted at the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).


This theory, repeated in our reading for this week, makes sense to me. Here's why: dairy was hot then. During the Tang dynasty, the Silk Road reached its height. By then, Chinese cuisine had been exposed to foreign influences for centuries. And if we look at Tang banquet menus, it’s clear that China’s rulers enjoyed scrumptious meals laden with dairy. They ate foods similar to kulfi, sipped chaas, and topped their lamb plates with paneer.




Cheese, however, was out of reach for the masses. Buffalos and cows were expensive to raise, especially in the south where there isn't a lot of space for grassy meadows. Besides, these beasts eat a lot, especially when they are lactating! Their appetites can become a problem when people are many and land is scarce, which was the situation in eighteenth-century China.


So what was the foodie farmer to do? Well, he looked around and noticed that there were *a lot* of soybeans around. Soybeans grow easily in mediocre soil and were cheap. But soybeans in ancient China were not a popular food. People didn’t like them, because in their cultural matrix, soybeans were associated with the poor. To be sure, the legume was a good soil fertilizer (like sheep dung). It replenished the nitrogen depleted by intensive farming. Soybeans were also mildly useful as a relish: some cooks added wheat and made a fermented bean sauce.


The humble bean, however, got a face lift sometime in the Tang dynasty. A peasant cook realized that you could grind down the soybeans and produce a milky liquid. How did she get that idea? Well, check out the cultural matrix.


In the medieval Chinese food system, soy was one of the five types of grains: Not a yummy grain like millet, wheat, or rice, but something you ate only when you were starving. What’s more, soy had a reputation for being bad for you: it gave you flatulence.


Gassy or not, Chinese cooks treated soybeans like grains. They soaked them, steamed them whole, and ate them. Sometimes, they ground them up like wheat and made flour from them. One day, however, somebody was horsing around in the kitchen and tossed soaking soybeans into the rotary grindstone. Much to their delight, they saw a milky product emerge. Then the lightbulb went off. Someone tried making a simple cheese by heating the milk and adding vinegar.


What resulted was something that not only looked like paneer, but shared its mild flavor, springy soft texture, and non-melting properties. The cooks baptized their creation ‘bean dairy’ (shuru 菽乳) or ‘bean curd’ (doufu 豆腐). They were probably relieved, too, when they realized they could eat the 'cheese' without getting smelly.


It would take several centuries, however, before Chinese cooks really got the hang of making high-quality cheese with beans. And indeed, those who could afford to eat well continued to mostly do dairy. Rich people liked the fact that dairy was the elixir of immortality, while soybeans were poisonous. (Incidentally, doctors said that radishes fixed soy poisoning.)


The poor had no choice but to stick with their beans. It would take countless experiments in the kitchen, fooling around with various coagulants, before a cook arrived at the winning formula. The discovery of nigari, made from salt water residue, provided a technological breakthrough. Curds made with it are nice and firm.


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Once Chinese cooks stumbled upon the right formula (or formulas) in the sixteenth century, tofu quickly overtook cheese in popularity. A million varieties of tofu and tofu byproducts sprung up. Tofu pressed and marinated to make jerky. Tofu cut into noodles. Tofu “skins” for wraps and soups. Silken tofu “pudding.” Frozen tofu with a honeycomb texture. Aged tofu that lures me across the street (and repels my mother-in-law). By the way, that aged tofu, or stinky tofu, is wickedly good fried and served with chili.




That winning formula also changed the way people ate around the world. Tofu became a big “thing” throughout Asia. Today, you can enjoy tender bean curd in spicy Korean stews. I recommend sundubu-jjigae if you haven’t tried it. On a cold day, it will warm your inside and delight your palate.


Bean 'cheese' also spawned a craze in Japan. This is evident from bestsellers entitled, One Hundred Tricks with Tofu (1782), which was followed by A Hundred More Tricks with Tofu, in 1784.


Slideshow: Eighteenth-century Japanese Tofu Dishes (Source: Nihon ryōri hiden shūsei)


Since then, tofu has spread far and wide. It has inserted itself in the cuisines of people living in Southeast Asia. The Vietnamese, for one, have perfected the techniques for producing tofu from tofu whey, and stuff their bean curds with ground pork and cook it with tomato and fish sauce. The Thais flavor their deep fried tofu goodness with fish sauce, chili, and peanut. In the Philippines, people enjoy silken tofu, or taho, in syrup as a snack.


Tofu has obviously landed in the Americas. In the eighteenth century, Ben Franklin was desperate to get his hands on the stuff, but had trouble buying the soybeans. Nowadays, the opposite is a problem. Soy can be hard to dodge. It is everywhere: not only in your soy sauce, but in places where you least expect it -- for example, your power bars and cookies. In recent decades, tofu has become a mainstay of the American diet.


Americans have their take on this food. For example, some folks add it to eco-friendly slimming salads, which go by the cringeworthy name of Tofu Buddha Bowl. In case you are wondering, tofu serves with the American staples of virtuous eating: kale, quinoa, and sauerkraut (for good gut bacteria).


It is also now sweet. You can buy tofu ice cream. There’s Fruity Pebbles Cheesecake made with the bean, and creme brulee tofu, too. For the brave of heart, Tofu “Spam” sushi awaits.


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Jokes aside, the historical perspective allows you to see that foods are like people. They are shapeshifters. Time can render them unrecognizable. (Would you recognize me in college?)


But if you speak the right code, you’ll start to see behind the façade caused by the name changes and the transmutations over the generations. Along the way, you’ll remember there was a time when people fried their tofu in butter (who would have ever thought?). Push back a few centuries more, and you’ll glimpse the man or woman who had the bright idea of making cheese from beans. Go a little further and you’ll see how the birth of tofu, now a quintessentially Asian food, was a product of cross-cultural contact and imported technology. Only then, will you grasp the rich history of the food, and its chief irony: Chinese once loved cheese more than beans.


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For all the lawyerly disputation, so far as I’m concerned, if it looks like cheese and tastes like cheese, it’s cheese. Or, if you want to be cute, call dairy cheese ‘animal-based tofu.’


Are you a tofu lover, a paneer person, or both? Let us know. Have a tofu or paneer recipe you want your peers to know about, feel free to post! Have an opinion about what we should call bean brie?


See ya on Yellow Dig!



Recipe Resources


Many of you are very familiar with tofu. But I will share with you several of my all-time favorites (tofu “spam” sushi is not one of them).


If you are looking for something basic and unlikely to end in disaster, I recommend this recipe: egg-battered tofu. My students and I made this in the Fall 2019 in a food lab devoted to Chinese cuisine after the end of Communist rationing. They loved the egg batter and the crispy texture.


Miso dengaku is one of my favorites. I picked up a taste for the stuff in 1998, when I was a graduate student studying abroad and living with a host family in Hakodate (northern Japan). This recipe is simple and you can pick up the ingredients at Kroger. In case you're wondering, JustOneCookBook is a reliable resource for Japanese food.


I’m also a huge fan of salt and pepper tofu, which is an easy Chinese plate to make. However, my all-time favorite dish is salted duck egg tofu. It was something I ate almost daily when living in Shanghai over the summer of 2012. This video will guide you through the process!


Finally, don’t forget that you can make your own soymilk. Food writer Cathy Erway, author of the Foods of Taiwan, has recently published a straightforward recipe.



Sources (Not Hyperlinked):

  • H. T. Huang, Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 6, Biology and Biological Technology, Part V: Fermentation and Food Science, ed. Joseph Needham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). I think Huang is an indispensable resource, but I think he’s wrong about the Han mural.

  • Nihon ryōri hiden shūsei: genten gendaigoyaku 日本料理秘伝集成 : 原典現代語訳 . Kyoto: Dōhōsha, 1985. Vol. 9. This series, available through Hathi Trust, is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to know more about the history of Japanese cuisine.

  • Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (California Studies in Food and Culture) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015),

  • Chapter 1-2; Chapter 3: “Buddhism Transforms the Cuisines of South and East Asia, 260 B.C.E.-800 C.E.,” 102-132.

Further Reading:

  • Jia-chen Fu, The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China (Washington, 2018).

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