A Brief History of Tofu

Some two thousand years ago, give or take a couple of months, tofu was introduced in China by Buddhist monks, who used it as an occasional substitute for their usual diet of air. Dhophu, or ‘bean meat’, as it was affectionately known, made its way over to Japan about a thousand years later, in June, where it became known as ‘What’s THAT?’ and later “tofu”, or ‘bean curd’.

Tofu came west with Chinese and Japanese immigrants, and was used in an attempt to civilize America, whose diet was becoming hopelessly enamored with beef and beef’s side effects, such as ravaged topsoil, depleted water tables, and huge amounts of global warming methane. The nutritional and ecological benefits of tofu as compared to beef was so obvious and unmistakable that it was steadfastly ignored by anyone outside the Asian community for decades.

Then, beginning in the early 1970’s, small tofu shops began to sprout up like mushrooms all across the landscape, introducing this amazing and versatile food to a befuddled public, who responded by asking “What’s THAT?” . Eventually, however, people came to appreciate the advantages of a protein source that comes straight from the earth’s bounty, without first routing that bounty through the belly of a beast.

Our Contribution

One of the first of these shops was Surata Soy Foods, which was formed in March of 1977 by a group of people who didn’t know that it could never work. But, like the bumblebee that doesn’t know that it can’t fly, Surata bumbled on, and began turning out batches of tofu for sale to the handful of natural food stores and restaurants that had appeared in Eugene, Oregon over the previous few years. The name “Surata”, a Sanscrit word meaning “Blessed Joy”, was chosen after it was reluctantly decided that a company called “What’s THAT?” wouldn’t work.

Making tofu is very much like making cottage cheese, in that the ‘milk’ created by combining ground soybeans with water is coagulated with a substance that separates the bean milk into curds and whey. Like cottage cheese, the curds are separated from the whey, but unlike cottage cheese they are then pressed together to form a firm block of tofu. In our case, the coagulant used is nigari, or magnesium chloride, When added to the hot soymilk, the magnesium ions tend to act like little magnets, attracting the soy protein and causing it to clump together in curds, while the soy oil is discarded as whey. (If all this is more information than you really needed to know, there’s very little you can do about it.)

Early on, Surata made and has maintained a commitment to using only organic, non-GMO soybeans and other ingredients in all its products. After all, if you’re going to take the protein directly from the soybean, you don’t want a lot of chemical fertilizers and pesticides along for the ride. In the early years, such beans were a little tricky to locate, since organic standards varied from state to state. (Some growers thought that simply slapping an ORGANIC label on the bean bag did the trick). Eventually, uniform organic standards were established nationwide, and now all our beans are purchased from certified organic growers inside the U.S. or Canada. Surata itself is certified organic by the USDA through CCOF.

Surata’s tofu was initially sold in little baggies filled with water and sealed with a twist-tie. Everyone except the health department thought that was cute, so the product line was adapted to include two kinds of tofu, firm and soft, and was sold in bulk quantities in buckets and, later, in vacuum packed units. It was also made available in retail packages of 16 oz. water-filled containers. The soft tofu was discontinued after it was determined that only people who didn’t like to eat were buying it, which tended to limit its sales potential. Sales of our firm tofu, however, grew exponentially, especially after it was discovered that Surata tofu contains 15 grams of protein per 3oz serving, more than most “Hi-Protein” brands on the market.

Tempeh Comes of Age

Tempeh is a food that originated in Indonesia several hundred years ago, when someone discovered that wrapping cooked soybeans in banana leaves and leaving them overnight produced a flavorful white cake that made the beans far easier to digest than not wrapping them in banana leaves and leaving them overnight. (Exactly why someone thought to do this in the first place is anyone’s guess, but then, whoever decided that it would be a good idea to squeeze the underside of a big hulking animal with horns was probably ahead of their time too).

It was eventually determined that the mold that grew naturally on the banana leaf also served to ferment, or pre-digest, the protein in the soybean and render it more palatable to the finicky human diet. The mold was cultivated to produce a pure culture that could be utilized in places that didn’t have banana trees, so nobody had ever thought to wrap cooked soybeans – you get the idea.

If tofu is the soy equivalent of cottage cheese, then the fermentation process makes tempeh more akin to yogurt, Unlike yogurt, however, tempeh is produced in much the same way a garden grows crops. The idea is to create the ideal growing conditions for the little micro-plants that make up the tempeh culture. If you were to examine tempeh under a microscope, you would see the roots, stems and heads growing within the field of beans and grains and spreading out to bind everything into a solid sheet of tempeh. (You might then want to stop looking at your food under a microscope, since it’s apt to make people eating with you rather nervous).

Surata makes two kinds of tempeh: Original Soy, composed of organic non-GMO soybeans, and Multigrain, which adds organic rice and millet for a more complete protein. Tempeh is sold in in bulk sheets of 3.25 lbs, ideal for restaurants and institutions, and retails in grocery stores as 12 oz. re-sealable packages.

Our site is designed to acquaint you with Surata’s tofu and tempeh, and give you some ideas of how to use them when preparing simple nutritious meals for breakfast, lunch or dinner. We provide some information about the health benefits of soy, and counter some of the misinformation recently circulated about its alleged dangers.

We’d love to hear from you. You can also email us with your own recipes, thoughts, or questions at



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