Colonial Tofu

My friend Joel Fry, archaeologist, historian, and curator of Bartram’s Garden, invited some of us out to the Bartram house this week. Chef Walter Staib of Old City Tavern is going to be cooking in the kitchen hearth at the Bartram house for his PBS program “A Taste of History”. Chef Staib is cooking two entire meals, so there will apparently be plenty of hearty food to go around.

The thing that interests me most is that Chef Staib is also going to be making something that us laypersons would never associate with colonial-era fare: tofu. Apparently William Bartram was sent a recipe for producing tofu, courtesy of none other than Benjamin Franklin. Joel is somewhat skeptical that the Bartrams ever made any tofu from the recipe, but even he concedes that it might be possible.

Joel sent another email that included the text from a now-lost letter sent by Franklin to the Bartrams. Joel writes:

It happens I just pulled together the documentation on the Bartrams and tofu for the chef, so I’ll paste in a copy for you to read at your leisure.

This is based on a letter Benjamin Franklin sent John Bartram, January 11, 1770 sending seeds of soybeans, which also included two enclosures describing tofu. Over the years the letter and the enclosures got separated and only recently has the whole story been re-assembled. (The original Franklin letter is currently missing, but it was published with other Bartram letters in 1849 so the text survives.)


Benjamin Franklin to John Bartram
London, Jan. 11, 1770.

My ever dear Friend:

I received your kind letter of Nov. 29, with the parcel of seeds, for which I am greatly obliged to you. I cannot make you adequate returns, in kind; but I send you, however some of the true Rhubarb seeds, which you desire. I had it from Mr. Inglish, who lately received a medal of the Society of Arts for propagating it. I send, also, some green dry Pease, highly esteemed here as the best for making pease soup; and also some Chinese Garavances, with Father Navarretta’s account of the universal use of a cheese made of them, in China, which so excited my curiosity, that I caused inquiry to be made of Mr. Flint, who lived many years there, in what manner the cheese was made; and I send you his answer. I have since learnt, that some runnings of salt (I suppose runnet) is put into water, when the meal is in it, to turn to curds.

I think we have Garavances with us; but I know not whether they are the same with these, which actually came from China, and are what the Tau-fu is made of. They are said to be of great increase.

I shall inquire of Mr. Collinson for your Journal. I see that of East Florida is printed with Stork’s Account. My love to good Mrs. Bartram, and your children. With sincere esteem I am ever, my dear friend,
Yours affectionately,

B. Franklin

Encloses letter of James Flint on “Towfu”
Jan 3d 1770


Dear Sir

1st Process

The method the Chinese convert Callivances into Towfu. They first steep the Grain in warm water ten or twelve Hours to soften a little, that it may grind easily. It is a stone Mill with a hole in the top to receive a small drain of warm water which passes between the two Stones the time of grinding to carry off the flower from between & keeps draining into a Tub which has a Sieve or Cloth at the top to stop the gross parts from mixing with the flower.

2d Process

Then they stir up the flower & put the Water over the Fire just for it to simmer, keeping stirring till it thickens & then taken out & put into a frame that has a Cloth which will hold the Substance, & press the Water from it, & when the Water is gone off the Frame with the Contents with a Weight on it must be put over the Steam of boiling Water for half an hour to harden or something longer. The pressing & boiling over the Steam brings it into the Form you see it carried about at Canton. This is the process as I always understood.

Now I shall give you my Opinion in what Manner I should proceed in the first Process I would send my Callevances to the mill to be ground, then I would put the Flower into water & stir it well very thin. Then strain the gross parts from the Flour & then you proceed to the 2d. For I look upon the reason they step the Grain & grind it with Water is that it is so hard they could not grind it with their little Stones. I hope you understand it, & wish the Complts of the Season I remain Dr Sr
Your most obedt Servant

J Flint


We don’t know if the Bartrams ever tried to make tofu. The impression from Franklin’s letter is he was very excited about this new food, but had no real knowledge of it, and certainly had never seen it. Franklin may have also been thinking about his younger vegetarian days. William Bartram’s copy of the process for making tofu is in a section of his “Commonplace Book” with many recipes for preserving and pickling foods. It’s possible William attempted to make some tofu following the recipe, but if so, it was probably more of a science experiment rather than a culinary revolution. Without any cultural context for the food, 18th c. Philadelphians would have had little idea how to cook, season, store or eat tofu.

Franklin’s “Garavances” more usually spelled “Caravances” or “Callavances” here means soybeans. This is one of the earliest, if not the first introductions of soybeans to North America.

Soybeans had probably first got to London in the early 1760s, probably brought by two Englishmen, James Flint and Samuel Bowen. Bowen, a seaman who had spent some time in China, and particularly outside the usual closely controlled trading ports. Flint was a super-cargo and agent for the Royal East India Company in China over several decades, apparently fluent in Chinese.

Flint once had the audacity to actually address the Chinese emperor directly ca. 1760, asking that more ports be open to Europeans. The emperor had him jailed on Macau for three years and then deported back to England.

As additional evidence the Bartrams were interested in soybeans and tofu, William Bartram copied the instructions for making tofu […] into his “Commonplace Book” probably sometime before 1773 when he left Philadelphia for his explorations in the South.


William Bartram MS “Commonplace Book” on page 215, (probably ca. 1770-1773):

How to make Teu-fu, a kind of cheese made in China from a little bean or Callevance

They first steep the beans in warm water 10 or 12 hours to soften ‘em. Then in a Stone Mill with a hole in top where in runs a small drain of warm water, which passing between the stones at the time of grinding carrys of the flower or paste which keeps draining into a tub which has a fine sieve or Cloth atop to keep the grosser part from mixing with the fine flower.

Then they stir it up and put it over the fire just for it to simmer, keep stirring it till it thickens; it’s then taken out & put into a frame that will hold the substance, & press the water from it, & when the water is gone off the frame with the contents, with a weight on it must be put over the steam of boiling water for about half an hour, the pressing & boiling over the steam brings it into the form you see it carried about at Canton.

Father Navarette’s account of the Tau-fu.
That is a paste made of kidney beans

They draw the milk out of kidney beans, & turning it to curd, with runnings of salt (Runett) while it is thin or liquid. they make great cakes of it like cheese as large as a sieve & 5 or 6 fingers thick. All the mass is as white as the very snow, & to look to nothing can be finer. It is commonly eaten raw, but generally with herbs, fish &c. It is excellent fry’d with butter. they also dry it & make it with caraway seed


So there you are. Even tofu has some historical surprises for us. If anyone tries this recipe, please let me know how you fare.

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One Response to Colonial Tofu

  1. Armando says:

    Post writing is also a fun, if you know after that you can write otherwise it is complicated to write.