Tofu in Tokyo: The Beautiful Unsung Hero

Photo Credit: Hideki Ueha

It’s probably one of those ingredients in the supermarket that is often overlooked by shoppers but once you’ve got your hands on it, you’ll probably wonder where it’s been all your life. Tofu has that impact on almost anyone who just had it. With its creamy, soft, and watery texture, tofu may seem bland and too simple at first sight. But don’t let that fool you. It’s actually one of the most important ingredients in Japanese cooking and you can almost make anything out of it. Add to that the nutritional value it gives you every time you eat it. One can almost think that this artisanal beauty of a tofu will be your next new favorite. But what is it about tofu that both young and old generations love?

Also known as bean curd, tofu has been out on the market for thousands of years. Though the word tofu itself is Japanese, its exact origin came from China. After visiting China to study Buddhism, Kento priests brought home their knowledge about tofu in Japan during the Nara Era. As part of the vegetarian diet of priests, tofu was eaten in replacement for protein and was also used as an offering to altars. It gradually became popular among noble and samurai classes and was used during festivities and important occasions. During the Edo period, tofu became available to everyone and was now used to everyday dishes found in Japanese cuisine. Tofu, unlike other Japanese ingredients, actually tastes bland but this is what separates the tofu from the others. Because of this, you can easily use it to sweet and savory dishes. It’s versatile, found almost in every supermarket and even convenience stores, and has health benefits. An excellent source of protein, tofu contains amino acids, iron, and calcium to name a few. And because you can use it in replacement of your meat, tofu is easily one of the ingredients that most people who are partaking in diet go to.

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How Tofu is Made
Though it can take too long to make a fresh batch of tofu, the end result is worth it. Most people prefer eating homemade tofu because it has a lighter and vibrant taste than the ones already sold in supermarkets. Tofu only calls for very few ingredients. They include the extracted milk from soaked soybeans, water, and coagulating ingredients like nigari.

The first thing to do is to soak the soybeans. This is important because you need to soften soybeans. When it’s ready, they are pureed until smooth and strain through cheesecloth to extract the fresh soymilk. Now, if you’re thinking of throwing away the leftover pureed soybeans which are called okara, don’t! There are many recipes in which you can use okara and of course, the Japanese people believe that nothing should be wasted, especially food. After the soymilk has been extracted, now it’s time to add the coagulating ingredient. It may be hard to look for nigari, which is the preferred coagulating ingredient for tofu, but you can always use other ingredients such calcium sulfate. After you mixed the soymilk and your chosen coagulating ingredient, pour into molds and if you desire a firmer texture in your tofu, you can always apply weight on top and leave it for at least 20 minutes.

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Types of Tofu
One may be curious about how tofu tastes like. While most of the time it’s bland, tofu actually has a light flavor of soybeans, one of the key ingredients in making it. Because of its subtle taste, it’s used in many recipes. Also, one interesting thing about tofu is its ability to absorb flavors. It’s best with recipes that call for marinades and sauces. Amazing, right?

Whether you’ve made your own batch or brought them in the supermarket, tofu comes in many textures and form. It’s an ingredient you can easily add to your dish. Fried, steamed and dried, you can almost do anything with tofu! But if you’re not familiar with how you can use this magical ingredient, do keep in mind that they come in three types.

  • First is kinu tofu (silken tofu). It got its name for having a creamy and silky texture which may be as well as the standard call for tofu. What makes kinu tofu different from the others is that it doesn’t need the whey to be extracted. The tofu solidifies on its own. It can also be referred as fresh tofu.
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  • The second one is regular tofu (momen dofu). This type of tofu is made by undergoing the straining process of removing the excess water and whey from the soybeans. It uses cotton cloth in the process and unlike kinu tofu, regular tofu as a firmer, spongy texture that most people find easy to cook with.
Source: goinjapanesque.com
  • The last type is deep fried tofu (agedashi tofu). This is the most common tofu found in everyday Japanese meals. Premades of this is easily found in supermarkets and convenience stores but of course, it’s still best made at home. It’s similar to aburaage (thin deep fried tofu) and atsuage (thick deep fried tofu).
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Best Places to Find Tofu
Healthy and delicious, it’s no wonder tofu is one of the most liked ingredients used in many Japanese dishes. Whether you want to make one at home or want to experience an authentic serving, tofu has got to be one of the things on your list to eat when you’re in Japan.

  • Tofuya Ukai (4-4-13 Shibakoen, Minato-ku, Tokyo) is one of those restaurants which offer private room settings and actually has an excellent menu offering a variety of tofu dishes. Their tofu is always freshly made every day, using the soybeans and spring water. What is unique about their tofu is that is has a subtle sweet taste. It is also known as the best restaurant to score some of the most popular tofu dishes in the city.
  • If you like a bit art on your food, then Tofu Ryori Sorano (4-17 Sakuragaoka-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0031 Tokyo Cherry Garden 1F) is the one for you. It’s basically a tofu haven for everyone who loves tofu. Their bestsellers include tofu dumplings, fried chicken wrapped in tofu skin, and if you like something sweeter, their tofu tiramisu will surely pique your interest.
  • Chen Mapo Tofu Akasaka Ark Hills Store (106-0032 Tokyo, Minato-ku, Akasaka 1-12-32 Ark Mori Building 2F) is a ten-minute walk from Akasaka Station and is probably your next favorite tofu restaurant. They offer Chinese cuisine and one of their must tries is the mabo tofu that has seasonings directly imported from Sichuan Province.

She’s cooking and baking for her family and friends. She finds grocery shopping therapeutic, always takes the longest time in the Asian section and debates with herself whether she needs that extra pack of instant ramen. A lover of sweets, she dreams of owning a patisserie and publishing her book but most of the time, she’s just really thinking of what to eat for breakfast the next day.

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