Friday, 9 March 2012

Our favorite taho and the Plaster of Paris

       A vendor scoops from his well of nice-tasting and warm taho. Right: A cup of warm
       taho makes your morning mood.


NINE YEARS ago, my doctor told me I was high in uric acid. So, from then on, I had desperately avoided eating “taho” (sweetened soya bean curd), a favorite foodstuff of mine since I was just a kid in Manila back in the early 50s. 

Taho, a by-product of soya bean, is heavy with protein, says the doctor at Medical City in Pasig who supervised my executive check-up.

Therefore, it is something that middle-aged individuals like me should treat like plague. It boosts your reservoir of uric acid that could later trigger different ailments from leg-joint crunching arthritis to nasty thumb-joint drilling-slicing gout.

“You’re on the way (to having arthritis and gout),” the doctor said  just before releasing me from his responsibility, and ordered the hospital nutritionist to prepare a list of food that I could eat with gusto and another list of those that could cause me problems should I ignore it.

And one of these food items was a warm serving of my favorite taho. I had been having this concoction every morning without fail since I arrived in Manila for my annual leave from work here in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. 

That was prior to my appointment with the doctor who recommended a thorough check-up so I would know what’s going on with my 62kg frame, if there was any. That time, I was 56.

Then, after seeing the results of my blood analysis, he dropped the bomb: I was not only “high BP” but also high in uric acid and these two could give me some health problems later. So, stay away from it (taho) or any soya bean products and red meats, as they are protein-packed and therefore, potential health hazards.  

So, whenever I heard the taho vendor screamed his ware in front of our house in Manggahan, in Pasig, every morning, I just ignored him. Inside my head, however, I was trying to savor the soft, delicate white texture of warm taho with a nice load of sago pellets and “arnibal” for sweetener.

This thing could really melt in your mouth without your noticing it! I could finish in one sitting a huge cup with load worth 25 pesos! And it was heaven! But those days were gone … sigh!
Then, just one day, I found a bigger reason for disliking taho.

Monching, my housemate here in Port Moresby (we work in the same company) told me that over the years that I had been consuming taho – from the time I first tasted it when I was just four years old, until I stopped craving for it six years ago – I had also been dumping a certain amount of “cement” into my system.

 “Didn’t you know that you had been eating cement over the years when you were eating taho?” he said, grinning.

        Every time you consume a glassful of your favorite taho, you are also ingesting a 
        small amount of cement - the Plaster of Paris.

Then he said: There are only four ingredients to make taho and one of them is the so-called “food grade” Plaster of Paris, commonly used as hardening agent like cement. The substance, also known as calcium sulfate and gypsum, is available at certain specialty hardware (yes, hardware) stores in Divisoria, Manila.

Without the Plaster of Paris, the soya bean mix won’t jell, or coagulate, as we see it sitting in the bucket, Monching said. He clarified, however, that “it was only in a very small amount”. 

But what the heck! It’s a cement powder used to harden casts for fractured bones, for making statues and figurines and the like, or for lining board walls in houses and buildings as fire retardant.

Last year, when my orthopedic specialist at St Mary Hospital in Daet was casting my entire left leg whose small bone got fractured after I suffered a bad ankle-twisting fall at our farm in Paracale, I was thinking of taho that I had ate for as long as I could remember.

But anyway, a half-kilo of cooked soya bean milk is mixed with three teaspoons of Plaster of Paris. The whitish powder will cause the cooked soya bean milk to jell or coagulate into a soft, solid mass or consistency that has made taho famous among Filipinos. The other ingredients are cornstarch and water.

About two years ago, Monching took up a course in taho-making at TLRC (Technology and Livelihood Research Center), a government agency providing needed skills to aspiring entrepreneurs.

But he never pushed through with his taho business. He was turned off by the mere fact that he would be using an ingredient that he felt could cause health problems in the long run to those who would consume his creation.

At first, he had experimented on the recipe a number of times to perfect the product quality. 

However, one day while washing the bucket where the taho mixed had been processed, he noticed the skin on his hand and arm that that got soaked in the milky water had felt some “stretching or hardening sensation” after a while. This was enough reason for him to kill an enterprise just before it could take shape.

Just imagine what the Plaster of Paris could do to his guts or to somebody else’s. Just to think that whenever you eat taho, you also dump a small dose of the material into your body.

Then he wondered: Have you ever noticed that even if it’s already 10am, the taho served to you would still be warm even without it being heated? This is really mind-boggling, since the vendor had started peddling his goods around town as early as 6am. It was a little puzzle, to tell you the truth.

Monching’s conjecture: It is possible that the Plaster of Paris also contains some form of acid or substance that is keeping the taho mix warm for an extended period, from the time it was cooked and loaded into the bucket till it hits the road.

AFTER invading streets and communities all over Metro Manila and many town and cities across the country from the time it was first sold by the Chinese vendors at the turn of the 20th century, my ex-favorite taho has finally found a niche in malls, super markets and at least 10 hotels that included the posh Manila Hotel, Edsa Shangri-La and Crowne Plaza. 

Maybe, the taho preparation served in such places was safe enough. Meaning, the manufacturers/suppliers had taken all the necessary precautions to make it sure the amount of Plaster of Paris mixed into their products was within the safe level. Translation: Fit for human consumption. 

However, many of the institutional manufacturers would deny using the powder, which is also known as gypsum and calcium sulfate. They feared that their clients would take offense of being served with a product of questionable integrity. The consumers’ health is at stake here, so it couldn’t be helped, really.

But Monching asserted that there’s no other way to come up with a taho quality that Filipinos know so well except to mix it with Plaster of Paris, at permissible amount. The unflavored gelatin that had been suggested as a good substitute failed to deliver the desired consistency, and of course, the signature quality.

Now, my immediate concerns are the hundreds, or even thousands of taho vendors that roam around the metropolis every morning from as early as 6 to peddle their product to thousands of kids and adults. 

And by mid-to-late mornings, their next batch of customers would be the unsuspecting office workers all over Metro Manila who would have taho for their break snack, believing that it was the healthy, cheap nourishment they badly needed to last them through the 8 o’clock-to-5 o’clock grind.

It is widely known that the vendors normally sourced their stuff from some Chinese manufacturers in Divisoria, or elsewhere in Metro Manila. 

It’s only the Chinese who would have the business acumen to venture into this kind of labor-intensive, tiresome enterprise. And whenever a Chinese is involved in such endeavors, there could be something fishy going on inside his factory.

When it comes to bad processed food, the Chinese notoriety has become global. For quite sometime last year, many Chinese food processors/manufacturers in China had been found to be using dangerous chemicals to enhance the quality of their products. 

Among such chemicals included melamine and cyanuric acid that later caused food poisoning among those who consumed products tainted with them. Overseas, suspect Chinese products had been removed from supermarket and food store shelves in massive volume before they could cause harm to consumers.

Expectedly, our favorite taho vendor had insisted that his product was being manufactured by his Chinese supplier using the most hygienic processes. 

But the question remains: How certain was he that the manufacturer did not overdo the amount of Plaster of Paris that had gone into the product? And how about the way he himself handled his goods while peddling it around: was it hygienic?

Well, just to give you an idea what the Plaster of Paris is all about, I am citing here a product description I gathered from a manufacturer’s website. First of all, Plaster of Paris is also known as calcium sulfate and gypsum. Have a look:

1)    Building gypsum powder for decorative ceilings and boards, wall decoration

2)    Model gypsum powder for pottery, ceramic, cosmetic powder, porcelains, beauty culture, chalks, medical bandages (orthopedic casts)

3)    CaS04, H20 (calcium sulfate, Anhydrous) for tofu coagulant and bean products, and additive

4)    CaS04, 2H20 (calcium sulfate, Dehydrate for tofu coagulant and bean products.

Then, surprisingly, the manufacturer has this warning: “All of the above contains calcium sulfate. 

Avoid inhalation. If ingested, may result in obstruction. If ingested, induce vomiting using large quantities of milk and call a physician immediately. It may generate enough heat to cause burns if large mass is kept in contact with skin while hardening. In case of skin contact, wash thoroughly with soap and water. If irritation persists, consult a physician.”

Now, we know that Plaster of Paris and food grade gypsum powder, have the same chemical composition (calcium sulfate). Except that Plaster of Paris is more concentrated and will harden easily.

THOUSANDS of Metro Manilans may not be aware of the health hazards they are facing from eating taho that had gone through the unhealthy way. They may not even know that every time, they are ingesting a favorite morning foodstuff tainted with materials that could spike their vital organs later.

They’re only option for a healthy, safe-to-eat taho is to source it from reputable malls and hotels. Here, they are assured what they are eating is safer than that of the street taho, having acquired it from a trusty source. Likewise, it is being served to you under a healthier, cozy atmosphere, as in the ambience of a hotel coffee shop, or restaurant, unlike when it is peddled right in the street by our favorite shabby-looking, rubber-thong-wearing taho vendor.

But who cares? Our taho has been with us for more than a century now, courtesy of the early enterprising migrant Chinese, and nobody ever complained? And if the ordinary folks could have this concoction everyday with ease, right at their doorsteps, then that’s all that matters? 

Don’t you think so?

Well, for all you know, I just realized that a taho is not a taho unless it is delivered to you first thing in the morning, nice and easy, warm and sweet. But just like in the past, I will pass.

“Tahoooo pooo …!!! Kuya … ate…? Taho po ba kayo d’yan …?”


  1. i miss my taho.... well,am flying home first week of april and my first agenda the next morning after my arrival is to ask mom to buy me a nice glass of taho with lots of sago and arnivah...

  2. another agen for tofu coagulant and it's the food grade is GDL...glucono delta lacton...

  3. Gypsum/calcium sulfate is safe for consumption as long as it's food-grade and in the right amounts. I find this article very fear-mongering. Anyone who stumbles upon this should know that it's safe to be used as a food additive.

    If you want to make sure, read this document: