Is tofu a vegan food? What is vegan tofu? Are they both the same thing? If you’re starting your journey into a plant-based diet or if you’re looking for a good meat substitute, tofu is completely vegan friendly. Tofu products are actually a staple soy-based part of a vegetarian and vegan diet.
Tofu is vegetarian because it is derived from soy proteins. These proteins are made from pressed soybean curds in a process similar to cheesemaking. This also means that, because only plant-based products are used in its creation, tofu is vegan.
The origins of tofu are rooted in ancient tradition, with deep ties to Asian diets. However, the natural food movement of the 1960s and 1970s saw tofu make its way across the oceans into the Western world – instantly becoming a hit with vegetarians and vegans, and praised for the fact it is high in protein, essential minerals, and has the ability to absorb flavour seamlessly.
What is tofu?
Tofu is derived from soybeans which are, naturally, in the bean family. When you see tofu in supermarkets, you should know that it will contain soybean curds. These curds are pressed into rectangular moulds, which gives tofu its iconic block shape, but there are absolutely no animal products used in the creation process.
Tofu has a mild flavour on its own, but the fun starts when you begin cooking with it. During the cooking of tofu, it will take on the tastes, spices, and other flavours with which it is cooked. This makes it a fantastic addition to any particularly saucy dishes, or dishes that need to be packed with flavour.
As tofu originated in the East, many popular Asian dishes often use tofu as a meat substitute, or to add texture to an otherwise vegan or vegetarian dish such as pad thai, bibimbap, mapo tofu, Szechuan tofu, and more!
The process of making tofu is actually rather simple, too. Steamed soy milk has a coagulated or thickening agent added to it which helps the substance turn into soy milk curds. From here, water is pressed out of the curds and they are formed into firm tofu blocks.
Is tofu vegetarian or vegan safe?
While many products are perceived as safe for vegetarians and vegans, some may have ingredients which make them unsafe for these groups to consume – or they have a variety of products, of which only certain types are safe for vegetarian and vegan consumption.
Overall, standard tofu is completely vegan friendly, however, some manufacturers add ingredients into their tofu that render it unsafe for vegans. Some examples of this include Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China-famous stinky tofu, which is fermented using dairy milk or shrimp brine. Additionally, egg tofu is a Japanese dish that resembles the texture of tofu, but is entirely made with eggs and stock.
For flavoured and altered products, like tofu nuggets or smoked tofu, we highly recommend checking the label to ensure that they are safe for vegan or vegetarian consumption.
Types of tofu
There are several different types of tofu that happen to have different uses and textures – meaning that they are fantastic for different applications during cooking.
Firm tofu, extra firm tofu, and regular tofu tend to have dense and meaty textures. These options, when you see them in supermarkets, are the best choices for replacing meat in dishes, and they can be stir-fried, grilled, baked, and air fried. They help to provide a ‘meaty’ bite that some dishes benefit from, rather than eliminating it altogether to make dishes vegetarian or vegan.
Next, we have silken and soft tofu. These both have a smooth and creamy texture that is far too fragile to be cooked normally. Because of their delicate texture, they can be used as dairy replacements and mixed into baked goods to create vegan products. They can also be used to create vegan scrambled eggs, which is fantastic for vegan breakfast burritos or quesadillas.
Tofu is vegan friendly, but what is it made of?
The most commonly used ingredients to create tofu are all vegan. Although some tofu can be made with non-vegan ingredients in order to add flavours, within normal tofu, you’ll only find the following three ingredients:
- Soybeans: Dried soybeans are the primary ingredient in blocks of tofu.
- Water: Dried soybeans are soaked in water. From there, they are crushed and boiled which helps to create the soy milk base of tofu.
- Coagulants: Coagulants are the ingredients that cause reactions that turn soy milk into solid soy curds. The most commonly used coagulants that are used in this process are salt-based. These include calcium sulphate, or gypsum, and Nigari salts. Occasionally acid and enzyme coagulants are used, but these are also vegan friendly.
Eating your normal, everyday, unaltered tofu is a completely safe meat alternative option for vegetarians and vegans. This extremely versatile plant-based protein can be added to a huge range of dishes: from miso soup, to mapo tofu, curries, or added to salads for a soft or crunchy texture.
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