Not that long ago tofu was oft- maligned in Western countries, largely as a result of the plastic-wrapped, porridge-like goo that was passed off in its name in health-food stores in the 70’s. Now tofu bean-curd is firmly on the world's stage as the health-giving, delicious culinary star that it is.
What Is Tofu?
Great tofu is one of Japan’s most sublime creations. Best of all is to get up with the larks, and head down to the local O-tofuya tofu maker for post-dawn, freshly made, creamy bean curd that is still warm. It's simply wonderful, and almost shamefully inexpensive.
Tofu is sold as the soft ‘silk’ kinugoshi and the firm momen also known as momengoshi. The former is mainly used in soups, especially misoshiru. The latter is eaten by itself, deep-fried in agedashi-dofu or used in the Kyoto classic yudofu, a hotpot dish. Both momen and kinugoshi take their names from the technique when the hot soy milk is strained – if the material used is cotton, the resulting firm bean curd is momen; when silk ‘kinu’ is used, it’s kinugoshi.
A classic way to eat tofu is as hiyayakko, cold blocks of tofu covered with soy, grated ginger and finely sliced spring onion. This is a favourite on the menus of izakaya and in homes during the sweltering summer months. In the colder winter months agedashi-dofu deep-fried tofu is an izakaya and home-cooking favorite. Check it out here at Tsukiji Cooking school.
Abura'age is thinly sliced, especially thick tofu traditionally fried in goma abura sesame oil, though these days producers use less expensive salad oil or soy bean oil. It is a key ingredient in the celebratory chirashizushi, and in inarizushi where vinegared rice is stuffed into a fried tofu pouch. This dish takes its name from the fox-deity and rice-god that protects shrines throughout the country, the most notable being Fushimi-Inari Taisha in Kyoto. Oboro-dofu, pictured here above is the melty, very soft variety.
Kyoto is indeed tofu heaven, with the temple areas of Nanzen-ji and Sagano-Arashiyama particularly famous. Try the tofu specialists Okutan or Junsei at the former, Sagano-dofu, Morika or Shoraian at the latter. Near to the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Tofu Cafe Fujino is a huge hit with its tofu lunch sets, and Konnamonja in Nishiki Market Street is equally popular for its donuts and desserts. Our favorite mom-and-pop 'local stores' for buying plain but fabulous tofu are Kawaguchiya in Moto-Tanaka and Kawasaki Tofu-ten in Higashiyama.
Is Tofu Healthy? Oh yes.
The ascetic monks of Mount Koya on the Nara/Wakayama border make their own distinctive greyish, thick Koya-dofu, (sometimes called kori-dofu – freeze-dried tofu), always served cold. It was reputedly first made by Buddhist patriarch Kukai, in the 9th century, who freeze dried the tofu by leaving it outdoors on a clear winter night. An overnight shukubo temple stay at Mount Koya is a fabulous chance to sample it, and Buddhist vegetarian cuisine as a healthy alternative to meat, shojin-ryori.
Yuba soymilk skin is a staple of shojin-ryori and another speciality of Kyoto. It is a marvellous accompaniment to sake, when it is served fresh with grated wasabi and shoyu tsuyu dripping sauce. Its creation is a time and labor intensive process, in which soy milk is allowed to curdle over a low heat, and then is plucked from the surface using either chopsticks, or equipment especially designed for the process. This is called hikitate yuba. Mildly lazy types can buy it pre-packed, and dried it is added to soups.
The health-giving properties of bean-curd include antioxidant/anti-cancer, fat-reducing, menopause-relieving, qualities. It is also said to prevent and relieve arteriosclerosis, aid liver function, and ward off senility, dementia and diabetes. Those monks were clearly onto something.