The History of Taho
Hours before the sun rises, a small army lines up outside a makeshift factory. Its men are equipped with empty tin drums to get their day’s supply of soybean pudding, sweet syrup, and tapioca pearls—the ingredients used in taho. For P250, the tin drums are filled with these ingredients, which the men carry on their shoulders using a bamboo shaft. They walk the streets of Manila peddling their wares for a profit of P800.
That means they have to sell around 40 to 50 cups of taho at P5, P10, and P20 per cup before the afternoon or while the soy is still hot.
A Taho Vendor in Manila
Photo by Brian Evans, Flickr.
This type of informal economy has been around for generations, but the product has remained the same. Taho is the Filipino version of soybean pudding, which has been around for millennia.
The word taho is derived from the Chinese word for the soft soybean pudding douhua. Taho originated in China in the time of the Han Dynasty (206 to 220 A.D.). According to legend, it was accidentally discovered by a cook whose original intent was to make soy milk. But he added impure salt to the concoction. The salt’s high-calcium content curdled the soup, producing a soft, silky substance we now know as taho. Mixed with almond syrup and beans, the douhua became popular in China.
Taho eventually found its way to the Philippines by way of cultural and economic ties with the Chinese for thousands of years. Instead of using almonds for the syrup, locals used sugar, which resulted in a stronger and sweeter syrup.
But it is not only in the Philippines where douhua found its home. The treat also made its way to Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, among other countries, where its name took different forms with varying similarities.
In Indonesia, it is called tahwa. In Malaysia, it is taufufa. Singapore and Taiwan call it douhua, while Hong Kong knows it as Dofuhua-Lamma.
Tahwa, the Indonesian Taho
Taiwanese Douhua with Tapioca and Nuts
Photo by Philip Lai, Flickr.
Dofuhua-Lamma, Hong Kong's Version of Taho
Unlike in the Philippines, the taho in Malaysia and Indonesia started as herbal food with medicinal properties. It was mixed in an infusion of herbs like tea with soybean pudding.
Today, taho is a popular street food in the Philippines. It is peddled in villages, thoroughfares, and business districts in the city. It is a power-up snack for workers who left home without taking breakfast. There are small but notable attempts to elevate taho as a commercial snack. In some convenience stores, you’ll find chilled taho in the cold foods section. Nelson’s Taho in Rockwell, Makati, offers a truly exceptional version of the soybean pudding, slicing the pudding into super-thin layers so that each slice absorbs and mixes well with the syrup.
Although taho has many Asian versions, the Philippine taho and the way Filipinos adapted it is undeniably a heritage we can proudly call our own.