The Case for Rare Chinese Tofus
A thank you to Kris Chari and Pranay Mittal for reading an earlier draft.
AI alignment seems far more pressing than factory farming, but I think I could have more impact in the latter. This belief seems suspect, given the overwhelming movement of EAs into longtermist roles, so I’d like to test it out. Below is my current case for working in farmed animal welfare (FAW). Please critique.
If this post goes well (meaning it isn’t ripped to shreds), then I’ll write up a comparison piece on longtermist community building.
Besides offering career advice, I hope you can learn a bit about the incredible world of rare Chinese tofus, which over the last three years has given my life so much joy!
The Case for Growing the United States Tofu Market
I think the U.S. tofu market could grow several times over, eventually averting 10s to 100s of millions of factory farmed lives each year.
To a large degree, American omnivores object to vegan food because it’s reductionary, focused on subtraction (i.e. chicken-less chicken salads) and substitution (i.e. inferior alt proteins). For most consumers, these foods taste chronically worse than the originals. It’s unclear how long it will be till we have high fidelity substitutes across a range of options, but the timeline isn’t years—it’s decades.
Public aversion is exacerbated by chefs. Because they see plant-based ingredients (especially proteins) as less versatile than meat, they promote meat-dominated menus, reinforcing the belief that vegan food is inherently worse.
This is in spite of the fact that chefs, like the general public, care about climate change and, to a lesser extent, animal welfare, and want to cook more plants.
To go mainstream, vegan cuisine should explore moving beyond reduction–basing itself off meat–towards creation–leveraging culinary strengths of plant-based ingredients to build all new foods.
In 2021, a team of chefs and I researched how to create new foods and found a simple yet effective formula: cross rare Chinese tofus with traditional, western cooking methods.
In the west, tofu is often seen as an ingredient, but it’s actually a category of ingredients, like chicken. In China, the birthplace and mecca of tofu, there are over 25 distinct types, which are as dissimilar as chicken feet from chicken breast. The most common types of tofu in the States–firm, soft, and silken–are like chicken feet; while popular in Asia, they are poor fits for western cooking methods and taste preferences. In contrast, there are other varieties that while rare in Asia are great fits–like chicken breast.
If our goal is to create new foods, the best people to do so are restaurant chefs. Fortunately, they have many motivations to help. Chefs love using sexy new ingredients. Many care about sustainability, or at least being perceived as sustainable. They desire positive press, which can be achieved by trying new, bold things. Restaurant goers desire more plant-based options, which at most U.S. restaurants are woefully lacking. The point is that there are many incentives which align with cuisine expansion, and which we can support.
It seems that for many ingredients, uses follow a heavy-tailed distribution. (How often do you see saffron outside of paella? Or peanut butter without bread?) The discovery of scalable use cases will mean the success or failure of tofu growth. If chefs unlock the “acai bowl” or “avocado toast” of rare Chinese tofus, then the market will grow. If we can motivate a decentralized community of chefs to independently create new foods, I’m confident that these use cases will emerge.
Build consumer hype around rare tofus (chefs seek out sexy ingredients): partner with a chef and Tik Tok marketer to build viral social media campaigns around innovative tofu preparations; build relationships with food world influencers and help them create rare tofu-based content.
Partner with a few restaurants, educate them on how to use rare Chinese tofus, learn about their challenges/needs/motivations/goals when using these ingredients, then create scalable resources to onboard and educate others.
Connect ingredient purveyors with distributors.
Build high-leverage partnerships with foodservice provider
Impact = (Growth in tofu market) x (tofu:meat substitution rate) x (animal killed per meat meal) x (years of suffering per animal)
The average Californian eats tofu 2 times per month. From a first principles perspective, given rates of flexitarianism and the fact that tofu is by far the most culinarily-versatile of global plant-based proteins, consumption could easily be 4-10x higher.
But assume, conservatively, that the market grows by just 1x. Assuming a 50% tofu/meat substitution rate and .1 animals eaten per meat meal, this would mean 5,400,000 years of animal suffering saved per year in California alone. Note that this number represents horrible lives averted, not just a measurable but minor improvement to farmed animal welfare. (Again, this is assuming 1x market growth, which seems conservative.) There’s little reason why success in California couldn’t be replicated across the States or elsewhere.
No one is currently working on this issue, and very few people are knowledgeable about rare Chinese tofus, so I think we could accelerate market growth by several years.
I envision two very significant knock-on effects.
By expanding plant-based cuisine, rather than just plant-based products, we can broaden the appeal of plant-based eating to a new segment of consumers—foodies and chefs—who are chronically underserved by alt proteins. This could widen the coalition of veg allies, both accelerating change and making that change more robust. A wider coalition also seems like a necessary precursor to societal moral circle expansion.
In China, tofu is a symbol of poverty—a relic from when ordinary people couldn’t afford meat. As such, ordering tofu for guests is often seen as cheap and disrespectful. This “shame” drags heavily on tofu consumption and elevates the status of meat. If tofu became prized in the west, however, I think these perceptions would change. Imagine if rare Chinese tofus could become western chefs’ culinary weapon against climate change, a solar panel for the palette if you will, upon which we could build truly delicious western veg cuisine! How epic would that be!! After living in China for several years and studying the Chinese FAW space throughout 2020, I have become very, very, very pessimistic about near-term prospects for change. Promoting tofu in the west, to raise its status in China, could, however, be a straightforward and significant way to contribute.
Animal Charity Evaluators in 2017 estimated The Humane League’s work to spare roughly 4 years of animal suffering per dollar spent. A similar price tag for doubling California’s tofu market would be $1.35M. This seems reasonable. Salaries for a built-out team—a full-time chef, social media expert, videographer, head of partnerships, and me—could cost under $300K/year. Other costs—kitchen space, ingredients—could be covered by tofu partners. I don’t think it would take four years to find traction. I also don’t think we would need that large a team to get things going.
My expectation is that success in California could be scaled throughout the U.S. or elsewhere, meaning that we could absorb more funds.
Why tofu market growth could fail
If this idea (promoting rare Chinese tofus in the west) is so promising, why has it not been tried before?
Hardly anyone knows about these ingredients, and the few people who do don’t have incentives to share them. Because tofu is seen as a cultural relic of poverty, there is no central authority that surveys and promotes them. Rare tofus are spread out across China, most often in remote inland villages, making surveying even harder. Local producers have very low social status, so aren’t taken seriously. Practicing Han Buddhists, China’s largest block of vegetarians, are generally no more knowledgeable: a) they live clustered around China’s southeast, a region with very few rare tofus; b) in addition to not eating meat, Chinese Buddhists avoid alliums (garlic, onions, chives, etc.), which is present in >90% of Chinese foods; this means that even when Buddhists visit inland areas, they can’t eat the local plant-based foods, so have little knowledge of the proteins. Historically, western Chinese immigrant communities have come from Guangdong (Cantonese) and Fujian (Fujianese) communities, which again use very few rare tofus. U.S. tofu producers aren’t from in-land China, don’t understand those rare tofus, and don’t know how to market them to western chefs. Because of the above reasons, western vegans also have little knowledge of vegan Chinese food and rare Chinese tofus.
Are there historical precedents for new foods or ingredients taking off or becoming culturally relevant?
History is rife with examples and for a simple reason—all traditional dishes were once created, and most fairly recently. Eggs and bacon for breakfast? Before a creative marketing campaign in the 1920’s, Americans hardly ate them. Italian pizza? It wasn’t invented till New World tomatoes arrived in Naples and paired with flatbreads. French food? Marie-Antoine Careme began a culinary revolution in the 1800s that pioneered grande cuisine, systematized the French mother sauces, and inspired a new generation of chefs. We would hardly recognize the food that came before.
China is renowned for some of the greatest culinary diversity on the planet, and I’d argue that its four largest subcuisines—Shandong, Sichuan, Suzhou, Canton—are as vast as most major world cuisines. And yet, they were only formalized in the post-Mao era.
Why so much change? The world culinary scene is getting richer and more globalized, allowing it to afford greater experimentation with more diverse ingredients. In turn, it has become vastly more delicious than our ancestors could have imagined.
There are reasons why these precedents may not apply to rare Chinese tofus. The food space is more crowded than ever before. Some aspects of American culture seem to be changing quickly, but others seem more set. Anticipating a new culture war, factions of the Republican Party have strengthened their commitment to preserving animal agriculture.
Yet, there are tailwinds. Climate change will get progressively worse for the foreseeable future, increasing our need for low-carbon protein options. Rates of flexitarianism seem to be growing, albeit maybe not rates of veganism or vegetarianism. Some of the United States’ top restaurants, like Michelin 3 Star Eleven Madison Park, have gone fully plant-based.
It seems like there are historical analogs for new ingredients, and tofu seems like the natural next step.
Isn’t soy unhealthy?
Actually, it isn’t. Harvard Nutrition Source puts it this way: Results of recent population studies suggest that soy has either a beneficial or neutral effect on various health conditions. Soy is a nutrient-dense source of protein that can safely be consumed several times a week, and probably more often, and is likely to provide health benefits—especially when eaten as an alternative to red and processed meat.”
Some folks worry about soy allergies, but these are incredibly rare. The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases estimates that just .6% of Americans are allergic, and these allergies are largely minor. (For reference, 2-4% are allergic to dairy.) While soy intolerance may be more prevalent than a full-fledged allergy, there is no evidence that this is widespread. In fact, there is strong evidence to the contrary. We tend to overestimate our intolerances by mistakenly associating food with non-dietary issues.
But doesn’t soy contain estrogen?
No! Soy contains phytoestrogens, a class of weak plant hormones. Study after study has looked at soy intake on diverse hormonal indicators (testosterone, fertility, etc.) and found that consuming 60-240 milligrams of isoflavones per day has zero downsides. For reference, 240 milligrams of isoflavones is roughly two 14 ounce blocks of firm tofu. That’s over 60 grams of soy protein – in one day! Good luck.
Aren’t westerners wary of soy?
In our small-scale survey, this was very uncommon. That said, the survey methodology wasn’t rigorous and looked at attitudes not behavior.
Some public-facing groups, especially of the “all-natural,” “California organica” persuasion, seem wary about soy. While vegan food brands often rely on these consumers as early adopters, and thus explicitly eschew soy, I’m not sure how relevant this group is to tofu. These people are not the target market.
Even if Americans don’t initially object to soy, it’s possible that groups later wage anti-soy warfare. This seems possible, but it doesn’t seem like reason not to pursue tofu market growth.
If traditional plant-based protein sales undercut the alt protein market, it could slow their growth and prolong factory farming.
My intuition is that rare Chinese tofus would appeal to a slightly different market than alt proteins: foodies and chefs rather than convenience eaters. That said, the markets would certainly overlap, especially down the road if tofu found mainstream use cases (i.e. a non-burger fast food option).
At that point, so long as tofu marketing doesn’t vilify plant-based and cultivated meat, and that it attempts to solve different market needs, I think giving consumers more options is ultimately worth it. After all, plant-based and cultivated meat don’t seem like a full solution to factory farming, especially in the next couple decades, and it would help to diversify our movement’s efforts.
I don’t have the skills to execute on this project; even if tofu market growth is possible, it wouldn’t come from me.
This is one of my biggest concerns. I have a mixed track record running projects and am generally inexperienced. More in the “About Me” section.
That said, no one else is promoting rare Chinese tofus in this way. I doubt others are better equipped, at least in the next couple years.
My name’s George Stiffman. Between high school and college, I spent about two years living across China, with stints cooking in Buddhist restaurant kitchens, studying at Chinese university, homestaying with local families, apprenticing in an ancient tofu factory, and eating my way across 20+ cities, towns, and villages. These experiences taught me a few things:
There is no cuisine as vast as Chinese food, and none with as many vegan foods.
The most distinct vegan Chinese foods come from culturally and economically isolated regions—almost no one knows they exist.
If we had just a fraction of these foods in the west, it would redefine what it means to not eat meat.
I graduated college right before the pandemic and have since been pursuing a variety of rare tofu projects. For most of 2020, I worked on two startup ventures. The first attempted to design a “meltable” tofu, loosely based on a variety from Guizhou and Yunnan provinces. The second tried to market frozen ready meals from rare Shanghai tofu. For many reasons, both ventures fell through.
In 2021, I pivoted away from starting a company to grow the tofu ecosystem. For my first project in that area, I partnered with two Los Angeles-based chefs, hired a photographer, designer, and editor, and began researching how to use rare Chinese tofus to create all new “western” foods. Our forthcoming book, Broken Cuisine: Chinese tofu, western cooking, and a hope to save our planet, is the first western book describing rare Chinese tofus, as well as the first (that we’re aware of) to explicitly champion cuisine expansion.
After being blown away by the culinary possibilities of rare Chinese tofus, I’ve become more and more excited about scaling culinary creation—hence, this post.
A few asks of the audience
Did I leave out any important objections?
What do you think are my weakest explanations?
How might I go about testing these assumptions?
Do you know of potentially allies I should reach out to? I would really appreciate any warm intros.
If you love tofu, I’d love to talk! Shoot me a dm :) Thanks for reading!
From personal conversations with chefs, almost all prefer ordinary ground beef to Impossible and Beyond products, the highest fidelity products currently available today. It’s unlikely that we’ll have whole cuts anywhere near as realistic as those in the next few years. Also: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/4uYebcr5G2jqxuXG3/when-can-i-eat-meat-again
For a more detailed discussion of why, reach out and I’ll send advanced clips from our forthcoming book: Broken Cuisine: Chinese tofu, western cooking, and a hope to save our planet.
This number comes from an internal survey taken in 2020 via Prolific of 100 California consumers. It wasn’t a foolproof survey, but I would be surprised if the rough numbers didn’t hold up. Unfortunately, I can’t find the original results, so the figures are from memory.
Since I lost access to the survey, I don’t have the exact numbers. But I’m 90% confident self-reported soy aversion was between 5-15%.
To summarize, rare Chinese tofus vary along several dimensions. Some are fermented and taste as potent and diverse as aged cheeses. Others are treated with alkali and melt when heated (these are especially interesting). Some are pressed into thin sheets, resulting in a different texture and flavor. Others are made from soy protein and have a springy, elastic structure. Some are dried, which in addition to giving them a long shelf life provides novel textures.
If you’d like more information, message me, and I’ll send you an advance explanation from our forthcoming book: Broken Cuisine: Chinese tofu, western cooking, and a hope to save our planet.
I’m not sure the best reference class for tofu, but it seems that Americans eat A LOT of certain foods, and rare tofus happen to have similar or greater benefits.
Beans might be one comparison: Americans eat roughly 7 lbs of beans a year, which comes out to around 84 servings, or 7 servings a month. I’d assume a lot of this isn’t vegan eating (i.e. beans in chicken tacos), and beans have cultural support in various cuisine, so this consumption isn’t strictly because Americans choose to eat a lot of beans. That said, it provides a rough sense of how often even seemingly trivial foods can be eaten.
Popular stand-alone proteins are eaten in much greater quantities. (~100 lbs chicken and ~110 lbs red meat/per person year.)
Meaning that tofu replaced 50% of the meat in any given dish.
2020 US per capita meat consumption=115 lbs chicken
/52 weeks /21meals*week=.1 chickens/meal
Dividing by 21 meals*week is conservative since tofu would likely substitute for lunch or dinner meals, in which meat consumption is higher. Beef and pork aren’t considered because they come from larger animals, meaning their impact is swamped by chicken. Chicken substitution may itself be dwarfed by fish substitutions, so .1 animal/meal is very likely to be an underestimate.
California 2021 population: 39,237,836 (https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/CA/PST045221)
Growth in tofu market: 2 meals/month=24 meals/year
Factory farmed chickens live ~42 days, or .115 years. https://reducing-suffering.org/how-much-direct-suffering-is-caused-by-various-animal-foods/
Population*(meals/person*year)*(animals/meal)*(years of suffering/animal)*(tofu:meat substitution rate)*(tofu market growth)=5,400,000 years of chicken suffering/year
See section on “PREVALENCE DATA”: https://journals.lww.com/nutritiontodayonline/Fulltext/2020/01000/Recent_Surveys_on_Food_Allergy_Prevalence.6.aspx
https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/80400525/Data/isoflav/Isoflav_R2-1.pdf − 100g of Azumaya Firm Tofu has 31 mg of isoflavones (which is high compared to other comparable tofus). Thus, one 14 oz block would have roughly 123 mg isoflavones.