Fad or Future

Yuba: the Buddhist meat alternative

Thought to have originated in China but a regional speciality in Japan, bean curd skin has been used as a vegetarian-friendly ‘chicken’ for centuries.

12 September 2019
free-fromingredientsmeat alternativeplant-based
image credit: Getty Images

Last week, two food giants announced they were releasing new soy-based meat alternatives into the market. 

Kellogg, under its MorningStar Farms brand, unveiled Incogmeato, featuring chilled burger patties as well as frozen ‘chick’n’ nuggets and tenders. Set for release in early 2020 in the US, the range is scheduled to enter the UK soon after.

Hormel Foods, meanwhile, has already started distributing its Happy Little Plants mince to select retail outlets in America, for use in burgers, tacos – or any recipe that would traditionally include ground beef or turkey.

But amid the concerns that heavily processed plant-based products may be as bad for health as the much-maligned processed meat, there may also be room for more traditional alternatives.

Yuba is one such option. When soy milk is boiled on the way to becoming tofu, a skin forms on the surface of the liquid. This bean curd skin, aka yuba, has been employed for several hundred years as a meat alternative and is thought to trace its origin to Chinese Buddhist monks who eschewed animal-based meals, getting their protein instead through steamed bundles of chewy yuba.

The process of creating a convincing meat analogue has since evolved thanks to the use of moulds and more diverse cooking techniques. UK online retailer and restaurant supplier Sous Chef sells it in a dried stick form, known as fuzhu in China, and recommends it in a stir-fry, while manufacturer Yutaka sells yuba in frozen sheets for crumbling into dishes.

Bean curd skin’s springy texture, further manipulated by braising, stewing and/or frying, makes it a flexible option to replace chicken, fish, pork and beef. While the flavour is fairly bland, it is an ideal ingredient to graft other tastes onto – as the Chinese and Japanese have been doing for generations.

From chicken and fish to salads and sushi

Beyond meat alternatives, yuba is found as a wrapper for dumplings or as a constituent of sushi. It’s even promoted as a gluten-free noodle alternative – in the restaurants in the Japanese cities of Kyoto and Nikko, where it is considered a local delicacy, it is prepared in udon, ramen and soba noodle styles.

It has also been taken up by health-focused eateries. Little Gem, a healthy restaurant with two locations in San Francisco, uses yuba in its salads as a protein source.

California-based Hodo Foods, which specialises in the manufacture of tofu and yuba products, promotes its use not only in salads but also as an alternative for roast meats and even pork crackling.

The versatility of the soy bean, particularly as a plant-based star ingredient, seems (for the moment) to have put concerns about deforestation in the shade – but does Sparkie think it could face up to the more technologically sophisticated brands like Beyond Meat?


Sparkie says:

The big focus for meat alternatives seems to be squarely on the products like the Impossible Burger, and for now that does not seem to show a hint of dying away. Even though there are now many imitators, they don’t seem to get any of the air time.

The one noted interesting property of yuba is that it fries to a similar crispy consistency to that of meat. Without trying the product on its own I think maybe it’s best use could be in combination with a different meat substitute that has the potential to develop the interior texture, like one of the extruded proteins. Wrap the sheets around a chunk of screw extruded protein and you might get the best of both worlds.

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