The Unexpected World of Tofu
June 12, 2017
Tofu at First Sight
At first sight, tofu may seem a bit bland and unassuming, with its soft and watery texture, creamy color and very subtle taste. However, this important ingredient in Japanese cuisine can be turned into some of the most flavorful dishes, and it has excellent nutritional value. Nowadays, tofu is widely known across the world for its health benefits and for being a versatile ingredient. Tofu has a delicate flavor, and it can be used in both savory and sweet dishes. It is also an excellent source of protein, amino acids, iron, calcium and other essential nutrients, while being naturally gluten-free and low in fat and calories. There are many different varieties of tofu, and different levels of firmness: soft, medium firm and firm tofu.
In Japan, the old capital of Kyoto is especially renowned for its tofu, which has been perfected over time by Buddhist vegetarian monks. Tofu artisans use century-old techniques to create perfect blocks of fresh, silky, and surprisingly tasty tofu that is very different from the mass-produced variety that is usually found at the supermarket.
At home or at a specialty shop, you can try your hand at making your own tofu. This way, you can experience it at its peak: freshly made, creamy, and subtly sweet. Tofu is made with soybeans and a coagulant called nigari, and it is very simple. First of all, soybeans are soaked and crushed, then this soybean puree is heated up and strained through a cloth to extract the soy milk. What is left inside the cloth is called okara, and you should not throw it away! There are many recipes that can be created using this leftover. And with this freshly squeezed soy milk, you can make tofu. Nigari is what turns soy milk into tofu. It is magnesium chloride, and acts as a coagulant. Nigari is sold in small plastic bottles all over Japan, and at many Japanese/Asian markets or health food stores abroad. Tofu is then transferred into molds and if you want, you can apply weight on top of it in order to achieve the desired level of firmness. And just like that, tofu is ready! The firm variety is called momendofu, meaning "cotton tofu," as it was traditionally pressed over a porous cloth. Kinugoshidofu means "silken tofu," because it is a wet, jiggly tofu with the creaminess of a custard.
Tofu Kaiseki: Tofu-based Haute Cuisine
Can you imagine eating an entire meal based on tofu? For many people, it would perhaps seem like the taste would be too simple, and it could easily fall into the boring category. However, tofu is such an adaptable and multi-faceted ingredient, and it’s easy to turn it into flavorful dishes. Because tofu is simple, its flavor changes with how you cook it and what you cook it with. There is a type of traditional, refined Japanese cuisine known as tofu kaiseki that focuses entirely on tofu. Regular kaiseki meals usually present a variety of fish, vegetable and meat courses, but tofu kaiseki uses tofu in every dish, and in all its different forms.
If you visit a tofu kaiseki restaurant, forget about the idea that you will eat blocks of tofu for every course. In some courses, you would not even know tofu was used! Here are some typical ways tofu can be prepared: abura-age (tofu sliced into sheets and deep-fried), atsuage dofu (thick deep-fried tofu), oborodofu (with a scooped, crumbly texture like cottage cheese), and yakidofu (grilled tofu). In addition, there are many variations on this same theme, and countless ways to cook it: cold tofu, boiled tofu, dengaku (skewered and grilled with a miso sauce topping), or even fried tofu balls. In a tofu kaiseki, you can sample tofu prepared in all the different ways, including in a hot pot, in miso soup and even au gratin in place of cheese. Tofu kaiseki is light but very filling, sophisticated and delicious.
Familiarize yourself with all the useful terms for soybean products:
Soy milk is used in many places all over the world, and makes a great alternative for those who are allergic to milk. It is often used to make lattes in place of cow's milk, and it is also a useful ingredient in Japanese cuisine for hot pots and other dishes. It can also be consumed on its own, plain or in interesting flavors such as vanilla, strawberry and even Japanese specialty flavors such as green tea and sakura (cherry blossom) during springtime. Some kinds of soy milk available at supermarkets contain additives (including sugar) and others do not, so it’s best to read the labels closely. Making soy milk is easy and it’s the first essential step in order to make tofu. Simply soak the soybeans in water overnight if possible. Next, strain, then crush the beans with a food processor, and pour the mixture into a saucepan with one cup of water. Bring to a boil then let simmer for about 20 minutes, skim the foam at the top, and it’s ready! You can keep the soy milk to drink as is, use for cooking, or add nigari and go all the way to make tofu.
Okara, or soy pulp, is what remains after soybeans turn into soy milk. It is usually sold for very cheap at supermarkets in Japan and it contains protein, fat, and fiber. Unlike its tofu and soy milk siblings, it is not usually consumed on its own. "Unohana" is the ultimate dish made with okara: it’s a traditional savory side dish made by combining okara, vegetables such as carrots, burdock, negi (leek or green onion) and shiitake mushrooms, shoyu (soy sauce), and mirin (Japanese rice wine). Another pleasant and surprising way to use okara is to mix it with soy milk to make a healthier version of doughnuts!
When you heat up soy milk, there will be a thin layer of film that forms at the surface. That film is called yuba. There is fresh yuba and dried yuba. You can eat fresh yuba (which is chewier than tofu but has a similar flavor) just like sashimi with soy sauce, and use the dried kind in cooking. In Kyoto, yuba is considered to be a delicacy.
Text: Vivian Morelli