You probably think you already know about Japanese tofu…
You’ve seen it in the grocery store in boxes or in square plastic containers. You know that vegetarian meals often use it as a source of protein.
Maybe you love it already or maybe you don’t, but it all seems pretty similar.
Well, however you feel about it, once you try it fresh in Japan, you’ll never see tofu the same way again. While those boxes in the supermarket are technically tofu, they don’t compare to the real deal: fresh tofu.
Why you should try fresh tofu in Japan
Eating tofu in Japan is a whole different experience. Don’t get us wrong, you can also find those boxes in the supermarket (in more styles and varieties than you can imagine).
But, you can also find fresh tofu and it’s fantastic. It’s so much better than the boxed stuff that you should go out of your way to try it in Japan. In fact, there are restaurants that specialize in tofu and serve multi-course meals that revolve around it.
What really sets the fresh stuff apart from the supermarket varieties is the taste. While standard tofu has a taste that’s pretty much neutral, fresh tofu stands out in both taste and texture.
It’s still light and mild, but it has a distinctively fresh taste and comes in a variety of textures, depending on the situation.
How is tofu made?
Tofu is made by curdling soy milk and then pressing the curds into solid blocks. It’s like making cheese, but with soy milk rather than cow’s milk. You ground and boil soybeans in water and add a coagulant (Nigari) to curdle them.
There are two main types of tofu: Cotton (Momen) and Silken (Kinugoshi). Each is made differently to create different textures.
For cotton tofu, the coagulant is added to the soy milk right away and once it all settles, it is all poured into a cloth-lined box with a few holes in it. Weight is added to press out the water.
For silken tofu, you pour soy milk directly into a box with no holes in it and no cotton cloth lining it. Then, you add the coagulant afterward. This process is what gives it its silky texture.
Which one you should eat
Both of course!
But, obviously, that won’t be an option for everyone. If you only get a chance to try one of them, you should base your decision on what you want to eat it with.
Cotton tofu has a hard texture that stands up well to heat. It’s common in dishes like sukiyaki or hot pots, such as chanko (sumo food), which involve cooking at high heat.
Silken tofu is the most popular type throughout the year and is used in a variety of dishes. One of our favorites, Hiyayakko, is a summer dish of fresh, chilled tofu topped with soy sauce, sliced leek, grated ginger, and bonito flakes (flaked skipjack tuna). In winter we eat Yudofu which is cooked in a hot pot with Konbu (seaweed), and eaten the same way as Hiyayakko.
If you have a chance to find Agedashi-tofu you should try it, too. It’s deep-fried tofu cooked with dashi (fish stock). We usually eat it with daikon radish, ginger, Japanese leek and bonito flakes. It’s a popular side dish in Japan.
While eating a full piece of tofu or having it in something fairly obvious like a hot pot is great, it’s not the only way to try it. Tofu shows up in a number of other places, too.
For one thing, there’s miso soup, which you’ll get plenty of chances to try. This will vary from place to place and the tofu won’t always be top notch, but it’s still a great addition to this simple soup.
Don’t underestimate Japanese tofu
We know that tofu doesn’t have the widespread appeal of other Japanese foods, but don’t overlook it. Just like other Japanese foods, there are master tofu makers that take their craft seriously. They spend their lives perfecting their skills and you can taste the dedication in the final product.
So, whether you go to specialized tofu restaurant or just stop by a tofu shop, you’ve got to try fresh Japanese tofu.
Quick tofu references:
Cotton tofu (momen): hard and used in hot dishes.
Silken tofu (kinugoshi): most common with a soft, silky texture.
Hiyayakko: chilled tofu side dish served in summer.
Yudofu: cooked tofu dish served in the winter.
Agedashi: deep-fried tofu cooked in dashi (fish stock).