Tour guide's curiosity revives taste for tofu banquets

( Updated: 2024-06-21


A chef cooks a traditional feast of 28 dishes in Tai'an. [Photo/China Daily]

Over 20 years ago, Wang Xiaogang won a tour guide competition in Shandong province's Tai'an city, where the famous Mount Tai is located. Today, he is an inheritor of the tofu banquet, one of the national intangible cultural heritage items.

Speaking of the change in his life, the 44-year-old said that it stemmed from a question he was frequently asked by tourists when he was a tour guide in the early 2000s: "What delicious food does Tai'an have?"

At that time, he instinctively responded with a local saying: "Tai'an has three delicacies — cabbage, tofu, and water."

But when tourists further inquired as to the reason, he found himself unable to provide an explanation.

"The lack of knowledge made me feel embarrassed, and also sparked my curiosity about traditions or cultures behind the old saying," Wang said.

Therefore, he delved into historical materials and visited chefs in Tai'an to better understand the ingredient, which he had been consuming since childhood.

Tofu sounds like doufu in Chinese, which is the word for "blessing", and symbolizes hope, happiness and luck, he said.

Historical records show that the tradition of the Tai'an tofu banquet dates back to the Han Dynasty (260BC-AD220), flourished during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and reached its peak in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

During imperial worship ceremonies held on Mount Tai, ancient emperors were required to eat plain food, making tofu an indispensable dish at that time, according to Wang.

After dedicating years to studying the food and its history, Wang selected nine dishes for a tofu banquet, and opened a museum in 2015 to feature them and introduce the culture behind them.

At the museum, visitors are educated via archived photos and written documents while enjoying the banquet. They can also experience the tofu-making process.

Since its establishment, the museum has attracted numerous domestic and overseas tourists as well as study groups, with peak annual attendance exceeding 500,000 visitors, Wang said.

In June 2021, the tofu banquet was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage item. That year, Wang began exploring a path to integrate it into rural revitalization and tourism development after visiting Dayuzhuang village, where many households use traditional skills to produce tofu and soy goods.

The village has become a preferred destination for weekend outings for visitors from Tai'an and surrounding areas.

In Wang's view, this approach is worth expanding nationwide for villagers to generate income by developing living heritages.