The Chinese-Born Doctor
Who Brought Tofu to America
Yamei Kin was a scientific prodigy who promoted the Chinese art of living to U.S. audiences
On a hot summer day in 1918, syndicated reporter Sarah McDougal paid a visit to an unusual laboratory of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bureau of Chemistry, a predecessor to the Food and Drug Administration, in its Romanesque Revival building near the piers of New York City’s Hudson River. The bureau usually worried itself with detecting adulterants in imports, but its role had expanded during wartime to investigate “meritorious substitutes” for foods made scarce by the trade disruptions and hungry armies of World War I—in particular, red meat, wheat, and vegetable oils.
The particular lab McDougal was visiting focused on a promising meat alternative—tofu—and was overseen by a scientist named Dr. Yamei Kin, dressed that day in a blue kimono and white apron. “I have never seen a quieter, quicker or daintier person in a kitchen,” McDougal reported to her readers.
Kin was something of a celebrity. A year earlier, with much fanfare in the press, she had embarked on a tour of China to investigate the culinary uses of tofu, with a headline in the June 10, 1917, edition of The Sunday New York Times Magazine proclaiming, “Woman Off to China as Government Agent to Study Soy Bean: Dr. Kin Will Make Report for United States on the Most Useful Food of Her Native Land.” Now she was back to share her findings.
“Everybody in the place was ready to root for soy beans,” McDougal observed. Chemists from other labs dropped by to testify that, having taken Kin’s tofu home for their dinners, they could not tell it apart from the fish or pork chops it was prepared with. McDougal was particularly impressed by an array of soybean products displayed in a row of glass jars on a long table: a white cheese, a brownish paste, a brown sauce. “Talk about dual personalities!” she wrote. “The soy bean has so many aliases that if you shouldn’t like it in one form you would be pretty sure to like it in another.”