The first time I tasted tofu in Japan, it was a foodie revelation. It was such a far cry from the grey, anodyne mush that I'd experienced all those years ago in London. Creamy, luscious, subtle yet deep. I was hooked, and I still am. Our office is right beside Tsukiji Fish Market, and it didn't take me very long to discover the wonderful local bean-curd specialist, Sugitora. If you're a vegetarian or vegan in Japan, don't forget that local tofu specialists such as these are a great place to source great, inexpensive food. Just bring a spoon and some soy sauce.
We pay a visit to Sugitora, to sample the best tofu in Tsukiji at the area's oldest, most splendid bean-curd specialist.
Tofu is in some senses deceptively simple. Yet to make great tofu, you need the perfect blend of top-notch natural ingredients - soy beans, nigari a kind of firming agent, and pure water - and the skill in eking out the bean curd's profoundly subtle tastes that only comes with years of experience.
Curious about tofu and how it's made?
In Sugitora's case, that's 117 years of experience! We dropped by early one spring morning, and already the proprietor, Katsumi Sugiyama, had been awake for many hours creating the day's precious tofu creations. Sugitora was founded in Meiji 34, that is to say 1901, the year that Queen Victoria died and Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th President of the United States of America. Today, the tiny store is run by its 4th generation owner, Sugiyama-san, and his wife and son.
There's something deeply endearing about these businesses that survive and thrive against the odds in the face of mass-consumption and globalization. They are very much in the minority. In the third decade of the Showa Period, 1955 to 1965, Tokyo could boast around 3000 tofu shops. Today that number is around 300. Traditional store owners have difficulty persuading their sons and daughters to take over a business that requires one to wake at 3am in the morning and plunge your hands into icy cold waters. Again, and again, and again and, yes, again.
Fortunately, that's exactly what the Sugiyamas do. "Tofu shops need to have some kind of unique specialty in order to survive", explains Sugiyama. "In our case, historically we have always concentrated on making 'cotton tofu', in Japanese, momendofu".
This type of firmer tofu gets its name from the cloth in which it is traditionally wrapped, and which leaves a fine imprint on the bean-curd's surface as it hardens. Talking to Sugiyama-san, I was surprised to learn that this type of tofu is actually harder to make than the more refined, 'silky' kinugoshi tofu (the type favored in Kyoto). The latter can be coaxed into existence in twenty minutes, but 'cotton tofu' may take up to ninety.
Looking for a hot cup of joe in Tsukiji Fish Market? Check out our recommendations:
At Sugitora they only use the finest soy beans. They are the Fukuyutaka brand, brought especially from Saga prefecture, some 900km away in North-west Kyushu. He has used the same techniques of steaming, stirring, separating okara and tonyu soy milk, for over 40 years. "It's a pretty ordinary-style tofu", he says, "so I'd recommend you eat it either in a hot dashi broth, or simplest of all drizzled with soy sauce and topped with katsuobushi bonito flakes and sliced scallions. If you are vegetarian or vegan, replace the bonito with grated fresh ginger". One of our favorites is the hard-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside fuwatto agedashi (¥273). It goes brilliantly chilled with sake or a cold beer.
Sugitora also makes some fabulous seasonally-themed bean-curds that reflect ingredients currently on the market, such as yomogi mugwort tofu and yamaimo yam tofu (¥310) in the Spring and edamame green soybean tofu in summer. Even these beautiful, hand-crafted bean-curds are almost sinfully inexpensive: momendofu (¥205), teage (¥140), yomogitofu (¥280), nama'age (¥178) and gomadofu sesame (¥290).
Map is here. Sugitora is less than a ten minute walk from Tsukiji Fish Market.
Address: Tokyo, Chuo Ward, Tsukiji 7-15-13, Seven Tsukiji Building 1F
Open 8am ～18:30pm
Closed Sundays and Public Holidays
Looking for some fun experiences to have in the Tsukiji area? Why don't you try a cooking class - including certified tofu-making courses - from Tsukiji Cooking. Learn more.