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Tofu

豆腐 Tofu

One of the most important ingredients in Japanese food that is indispensable in both traditional and modern Japanese cuisine
Tofu is regarded as a healthy food as it is full of nutrition yet has few calories. With many different recipes, one can enjoy a variety of tofu dishes in Japan.


Keywords

  • ◆Firm tofu and silken tofu
    The words indicating the ratio of a filler and the buckwheat flour. Juwari soba has a nice flavor without fillers. With more fillers, the soba becomes easier to swallow.
  • ◆Bean-curd residue
    The residue from squeezing of soybeans, which is usually discarded yet also used in a number of dishes.
  • ◆Chilled tofu
    An appetizer served with chilled silken tofu, sprinkled with sliced leeks, ginger and bonito flakes.
  • GURUNAVI Japanese Restaurants in Shingapore
  • GURUNAVI Japanese Restaurants

About
What is tofu?
A valuable source of protein.

Tofu

Tofu is made by hardening soy extract by adding a coagulant called nigari. It is a processed food that has been eaten for many years in a wide range of areas, from East Asia to Southeast Asia. Compared to tofu from other countries, Japanese tofu in general is much whiter and softer.

Tofu is one of the most popular foods in Japan, and can be easily bought cheaply in supermarkets and convenience stores across the nation. Thus, it is provided in various restaurants, from an izakaya where the customers can enjoy cheap drinks to high-end Japanese restaurants that charge tens of thousands of yen just for the seats.

The simplest way of tasting tofu in Japan is hiyayakko (cold tofu), in which tofu is cut into suitable pieces and is accompanied by condiments such as leeks and ginger. A bit of soy sauce is poured on top when it is eaten. Tofu is also used in various dishes. Diced tofu can be used as a miso soup ingredient. Tofu is also one of the ingredients in nabe (hotpot) dishes where it is stewed in dashi soup broth, along with vegetables, meat and fish. Tofu is processed into a rough paste to put in salads along with other vegetables.

Furthermore, with the health boom in the recent years, tofu has garnered attention as a low-calorie, high-protein food. Therefore, it has been used to replace hamburger meat and cake sponges, with people cooking tofu hamburgers and tofu sweets in their households.

Tofu is an important food that is indispensable to Japan as it surpasses the genres of food, being used in both Japanese and western dishes. It is deep-rooted in Japanese diets and is often used in a tofu dish or as an ingredient.

History

Tofu

Although the commonly accepted theory is that tofu didn’t originate from Japan but was introduced from China, its origin is not yet clear and there are various theories to this. According to old Japanese literature, tofu was introduced to Japan from China between the Nara (710-794) and Kamakura periods (1185-1333). During the Muromachi period (1336-1573) it spread to various parts of Japan, and it came to be eaten as a common food in the Edo period (1603-1868). However, during the early Edo period, tofu was treated as a luxury item. There was even a time when farmers were only allowed to eat tofu on special days and were even prohibited from making it. Such regulations were relaxed during the mid-Edo period, and tofu started to become established as a food for the general public. There is a record that states that during this period a book that introduced 100 types of tofu dishes was sold to the general public.

As tofu became widespread, the development of recipes that used tofu progressed rapidly. One of the reasons behind this was that tofu was an important source of protein for monks who were prohibited from killing animals due to their religion (Buddhism). Furthermore, tofu, which was easy to process and had a light taste, was perfect for experimentation when it came to recreating the taste of meat. The food that such monks ate is called shojin ryori (vegetarian meal). In a recipe book of shojin ryori that was written during the Edo period, over 90 out of the 100 types of recipes included in the book used tofu. Dishes that use tofu had names such as kiji (Japanese pheasants) yaki and tanuki (raccoons), displaying the monks’ longing toward meat.

When tofu was made available to the general public, tofu stores started to open in towns. Not only was tofu made each morning sold from storefronts, but there were also vendors that marched around the town selling the tofu they carried on their backs. Although it is rarely seen nowadays, the image of a tofu vendor walking around selling tofu while playing a trumpet that made a wailing sound has become a fixed image of tofu vendors in Japan. This trumpet was originally used by horse-drawn carriage coachmen during the early Meiji period (1868-1912) to alert people of danger. Tofu vendors came to use it after one vendor started using it, thinking that the sound it made sounded like it was saying “to-fu”.

Household styles have been diversifying in recent years. However, the lifestyle of the husband going out during the daytime to work and the wife doing household duties was a lifestyle that was common in Japan for a long time. Tofu stores coordinated with such lifestyles and went out to sell tofu in residential areas during the hours before the evening when the wives started to prepare their dinners. In the past, there were many households that made miso soup without any ingredients and waited until they heard the sound of the tofu vendor’s trumpet. Even today, in towns where there are tofu stores, one can see tofu vendors riding a bicycle in residential areas while playing a trumpet. Although you may or may not think that the sound of the trumpet makes sounds like it’s saying, “to-fu”, this is one aspect of Japanese culture that has remained since the old days. If you are interested, why not go to towns and listen carefully?

Preparations

Tofu

Tofu begins with soybean extract (soymilk) which is made by grinding soybeans soaked in water and hardening it with a coagulant called nigari. Although it has become possible to mass-produce tofu today using machines, the manufacturing method hasn’t changed much since old days, perhaps because it’s an extremely simple food whose raw ingredient is only soybeans.

However, there was an event concerning tofu that could be described as revolutionary: the emergence of kinugoshi-dofu (silken tofu).

Popular types of tofu in Japan are cotton tofu and silken tofu. Cotton tofu is tofu that is as hard as an earlobe with a grain on the surface. Silken tofu has a smooth surface and soft and creamy texture that seems to melt in the mouth. The only difference between the two is whether the pressure is applied or not after the nigari has been mixed into the soybean extract placed into a mold to harden; there is no difference in raw ingredients. The emergence of this new tofu that had a beautiful appearance and melt-in-the-mouth texture jolted the public. This tofu spread across Japan, even becoming one of the standard tofu types in Japan.

This silken tofu is actually a difficult dish to eat with chopsticks. It is difficult even for Japanese people who are used to using chopsticks to pick it up as it’s as soft as pudding. It isn’t rare for silken tofu to become shredded and collapse as the eater attempts several times to pick it up. It would be wiser to ask the store’s staff members to give you a spoon if you’re not used to chopsticks. However, the sensation of hotness or the coolness of tofu melting in the mouth is an integral part of the deliciousness of tofu. Therefore, if you use a spoon (in particular, metallic ones), you may feel the coldness and the warmness of the spoon prior to those of the tofu, and the deliciousness of the tofu might make less of an impact (although for some tofu dishes this can be an advantage). If you would like to know the true taste of tofu, you should have a go at carrying tofu with chopsticks to your mouth.

Regional differences

Tofu

Regions famous for tofu dishes are Kanagawa, Kyoto, Wakayama and Saga prefectures. Tanzawa district in Kanagawa prefecture has been designated as a quasi-national park and Koyasan Mountain in Wakayama prefecture has temples that many visitors come to see. In these temples, tofu is provided within their shojin ryori course meals. Yu-dofu (boild tofu) is famous in Kyoto, with there even being restaurants that specialize in yu-dofu. Meanwhile, Saga prefecture provides a slightly different eating method with its onsen (hot spring) tofu. The cooking method is not dissimilar to boiled tofu. However, for broth, the water from the hot spring that wells up in the region is used. It is said that this tofu is good for nutritional fortification. In addition, there are several regions that have the food culture of processing tofu into a preservative food. Tofu that has been dried by putting it out to dry to remove the moisture is called shimi-dofu. It was a food prepared by in the snowy Tohoku region so that each household could prepare for the cold winters. Dried tofu not only lasts a long time, removing moisture from tofu makes it light and easy to carry it around, since tofu is 90% water. The tofu that is used in shojin ryori for monks that train in the mountains was mainly a shimi-dofu called koya-dofu.

In addition, there are regions that eat rare, unique tofu that is not well known even among Japanese people. Such examples include local tofu of Kumamoto called kazura-dofu marinated in miso. Okinawa prefecture has tofu-yo that is fermented in awamori (the most popular spirit in Okinawa). Similarly, Okinawa has jimami-dofu made by peanuts instead of soybeans. These types of tofu have distinct flavors that are completely different from common tofu.

Additionally, although these are not really local dishes, there are regions that make their own unique tofu by combining their famous local foods, such as green soybeans and sesame seeds. There are also many famous restaurants around Japan which simply carry delicious tofu. If you are traveling around Japan, tasting different tofu in each region might be worth a try.

1. Tofu dishes from Oyama (Atsugi/ Tanzawa region, Kanagawa prefecture)
Famous for tofu made from the clean waters from the Tanzawa Mountains. You can enjoy eating plenty of tofu with tofu course meals.

2. Yu-dofu (boiled tofu) (Kyoto prefecture, all regions)
A tofu dish that is said to have originated from a famous restaurant, whose popularity spread via visitors of temples and shrines. It is a dish recommended to eat in an elegant setting.

3. Shojin ryori (vegetarian dish; Koyasan Mountain district, Wakayama prefecture)
Known for course meals that use shimi-dofu called koya-dofu, which is an indispensable ingredient for shojin ryori. Enjoy the broth seeping out from the tofu.

4. Onsen yu-dofu (Imari, Arita, Takeo Hot Springs, Saga prefecture)
This is a staple breakfast dish served at the local ryokan (Japanese traditional hotel). The alkali components in the hot springs give the tofu a uniquely fatty texture.

5. Shimi-dofu (Fukuoka prefecture, all regions)
Tofu that has had its moisture removed, making it possible to preserve it for a long time. It is often called shimi-dofu in eastern Japan and koya-dofu in western Japan.

6. Kazura-dofu marinated in miso (Yatsushiro, Hitoyoshi, Kumagawa River areas, Kumamoto prefecture)
A dish that marinates tofu in miso so that it can be preserved for long periods of time. It has a unique flavor like miso flavored cheese.

7. Tofu-yo (Okinawa prefecture)
Tofu fermented in awamori, a famous product of Okinawa. Its features are a viscosity like cheese and strong, unique flavor.

8. Jimami-dofu (Okinawa prefecture)
Tofu that is made using peanuts as ingredients, instead of soy beans. With a sticky and slippery texture, it can be eaten also as a dessert.

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