The Surprising, Controversial History of Tofu

The origin of the original plant-based meat is clouded with multiple theories

M. Murphy
Published in
5 min readApr 7, 2020
‘An Elegant Party’ (detail) by Emperor Huizong of Song (r. 1100–1125 AD) via Patricia Ebrey’s Cambridge Illustrated History of China (1999)/Wikimedia Commons

Plant-based meats are exploding on the American market. Over the past two years alone, we’ve seen a 37.1% surge in their sales, with even more dramatic growth projected for 2020. Burger King credits their best quarter in four years to their new Impossible Whopper, and Dunkin’ Donuts easily doubled expected sales for their Beyond Meat sandwich. Understandably, competitors are now scrambling to add plant-based options to their menus. In a matter of moments, meat alternatives have left the fringe and burst onto the American mainstream.

Given the sudden and ongoing nature of the way this trend has been covered in the West, one might be forgiven for assuming that vegan meat is a new invention. This assumption, however, would be wrong; humans have been creating meat-alternatives for two millennia. The basic facts are not disputed: Tofu is the first plant-based meat, and the ancient Chinese discovered it. Step outside these basic facts, however, and you enter a realm of controversy. There are three competing narratives for how tofu came into the world, and the debate is far from over.

Photo: limarga26/Pixabay

The most famous version of the story is that Prince Liú Ān (179–122 BC) of the Han Dynasty invented tofu. In some versions of the tale, the prince created the dish in an attempt at producing an elixir of immortality. (It did not grant eternal life, but its deliciousness was a worthy consolation prize.) In other versions of the tale, the prince produced the dish as an easily consumable source of nutrition for his ailing grandmother. While these both make for good stories, they are unlikely to be true: The historical records of ancient China are not above embellishing on behalf of the well-born. Case in point, this same prince also mastered alchemy, sprouted wings, and permanently escaped death via divine intervention. We should view Liú Ān’s invention of tofu with the same skeptical lens we use for Kim Jong-il’s invention of the hamburger.