Furu is a fermented soybean product. It is a cheese-like product with a spreadable creamy consistency and a very distinct flavour. The value of the Chinese market for furu in 2020 was RMB 7 billion.
Furu is a popular seasoning for breakfast rice or steamed bread (mantou). It has a long history and written records date back to the 3rd century.
Furu is made by fungal solid state fermentation of tofu (soybean curd) followed by aging in brine containing salt and alcohol.
The production process consists of two fermentation steps. Square blocks of regular white bean curd (4.3 x 4.3 x 1.5 cm) are rubbed with Mucor fungus and soybean meal, placed on wooden boards, and fermented for 2 – 3 days in a room with a temperature of 35 – 40 ºC, during which they are regularly turned around. Then they are placed in jar with brine and soaked for 7 days.
Finally, the beancurd cubes are placed in a jar with a mixture of red koji powder, fermented paste, pickled daylily, distilled liquor (baijiu), spices, some rice wine and water. The jars are sealed with paper and fermented for 3 months at 30 ºC.
The following video introduces the industrial production of furu. It is in Chinese without English subtitles, but I think it is informative enough for food technologists.
Several types of furu can be distinguished, according to processing method or according to colour and flavour.
Choice of processing can result in mould fermented furu, naturally fermented furu, bacterial fermented furu, or enzymatically ripened furu. Fungal starters include Actinomucor spp., Mucor spp. and Rhizopus spp.
One way of determining types of furu is by colour. The three main types are: white, blue and red.
The following map indicates which region of China prefers what type of furu.
Top furu brands
Wangzhihe is the oldest existing brand, founded in 1669.
Wangzhihe (founded in 1669) is also actively developing its formulation. A newly launched version is Xylitol Furu.
The ingredients as listed on the label:
Water, soybeans, alcohol, salt, wheat flour, additives(xylitol, red koji, magnesium chlorate, citric acid), spices.
Let’s have a look at the nutrition information (100 gr) of the xylitol furu and the regular version, both by Wangzhihe.
So some of the fat has been replaced by carbohydrates, and additives are used to restore the texture, colour and other organoleptic properties of the ‘real thing’.
Wangzhihe has also launched a ‘low salt furu’.
Wang Jiahuai, General Manager of the Wangzhihe Group, stated in an interview in April 2015, “It takes at least 100 days to ferment furu while natto (Japanese soy food) ferments in about one week. There is a wide gap in texture, fermentation and nutrition between Chinese furu and the Japanese natto.”
The furu range of Lanting Food (Shaoxing) includes a ‘ham furu’. The ingredients include Shaoxing rice wine and Jinhua ham, two local specialties of Zhejiang province. This product fits in with a popular trend in food innovation in China that tries to cash in on famous local products.
Innovation is also taking place in the use of furu. Wangzhihe has launched a promotion to apply its ‘mild furu‘ on hamburgers, as an alternative to the Western slice of cheese or Western sauces.
One route to innovation is a strategic alliance between a manufacturer and a university. Chunming Seasoning (Qingdao, Shandong) has established a Qingdao Chunming Seasoning Research & Development Centre in cooperation with the Food & Beverage Research Institute of Qingdao University. Apart from developing new and better products, this project is also a good breeding ground for new engineers for the company.
National cultural heritage
Wangzhihe’s furu got national recognition as a cultural heritage item, in June, 2008. The company gives all its suppliers an evaluation and certification before allowing them to supply. They are mostly located in the northeastern provinces of Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang, which have high-quality soya beans.
Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success.