Photo Credit: David Dawson

Bean to Block: Journey to the Birthplace of Chinese Tofu

Firm up your knowledge of bean curd on the fabled mountain where it was said to be invented

With the possible exceptions of rice and dumplings, few foods seem as intrinsically tied to Chinese culture as tofu. But despite its widespread popularity throughout China and among vegetarians everywhere, the origins of the bean curd remain shrouded in mysteries of Chinese kings obsessed with finding an elixir for immortality.

Huainan isn’t much of a second-tier city; while it has pleasant central avenues lined with trees, there isn’t much that couldn’t be found in any other central Chinese city of similar size. Located in the northeast of Anhui province, it can be reached via fast train and isn’t too far from Nanjing.

But the city itself isn’t the destination: It is Bagongshan (八公山), or Eight Gentlemen Mountain, that holds the keys to the history of tofu.

The mountain is named after the eight super-friends of Prince Liu An (刘安) of the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Now known as Bagongshan Geopark, it is dotted with statues of these buddies, known as the “Eight immortals of Huainan (淮南八仙).” Seeing as how they’re all dead, we can assume they weren’t actually immortal—other Chinese figures with “immortal” status were often deified as part of a religion, but for these mere men, the term “immortal” was a metaphorical reference to their talent.

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David Dawson is the former deputy editor of The World of Chinese.

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