Washoku Explorers: Tofu, a regional specialty
October 30, 2017
A Special type of Tofu
In August 2017, three culinary experts from the United States and Britain arrived in Japan to learn about the essence of washoku, Japanese cuisine. Washoku chefs agree that the key to understanding true Japanese cuisine is to get away from the cities and experience the diverse food culture and ingredients of the countryside. That’s why the trio decided to head 300 kilometers northwest of Tokyo to Toyama prefecture, where they explored a rich food culture made possible by Toyama's fertile lands and abundant fisheries. An NHK WORLD TV crew followed them as they experienced the prefecture’s unique ingredients, resulting in a fascinating program that provides an insight into the essence of washoku.
The three visitors encountered much more than could be covered in a single TV program, and this led to the idea of having the director provide additional commentary on their culinary adventures. In the first of a series of special features on Washoku Explorers, we’ll look at the fascinating world of tofu, a product that is becoming increasingly popular outside Asia, especially among the health conscious.
Our traveling gourmets visited a 100-year old tofu shop in Gokayama, a valley surrounded by soaring mountains. The third-generation owner, Kihei Iwasaki, makes tofu by hand every day using local soybeans and spring water.
Gokayama tofu (pronounced Gokayama-dofu) is a local specialty known for its firm and dense texture. It is hard enough that it can be tied up with a rope and lifted without breaking! This came as a surprise to even the Japanese chefs accompanying our explorers. The block of tofu in the photo above weighs two kilograms!
It is said that the first tofu introduced to Japan, via China in the Nara period (710-784 AD), was also quite hard. Over the years, it was gradually refined and evolved into the softer type of tofu that has become mainstream today. Iwasaki says that Gokayama tofu retains the intrinsic characteristics of that original tofu.
There are two secrets to Gokayama tofu’s hardness. The first is that it uses three times the regular amount of soybeans. The second is that it is thoroughly drained of excess moisture for half an hour. This results in tofu absolutely packed with the rich flavor and aroma of soybeans. British food writer Susan was amazed by how flavorful it was, saying that although tofu has become popular in Western countries, she had never tasted tofu so good. The trio came to the conclusion that Gokayama tofu is especially delicious because it is handmade without any preservatives, using only the highest quality soybeans and water.
While adhering to the age-old method of tofu making, Iwasaki also experiments with creating new flavors. He asked the explorers to try one of his ideas—Gokayama tofu smoked with cherry wood for eight hours. The smoking process further reduces the tofu’s moisture content, making the consistency more like that of cheese. In fact, if you were to eat it with your eyes closed, you wouldn’t realize it was tofu! The two accomplished American chefs Erik and Naomi were both excited and inspired by the smoked tofu. Erik commented that it could be used as a substitute for ham in vegetarian dishes. Naomi agreed, saying that it would make a great sandwich ingredient. Iwasaki also recommended shaving the smoked tofu for use as a pasta topping. Susan came up with an original dish that makes the most of the tofu's healthy properties, which is featured in the TV program. One more reason not to miss the show!
Another one of Iwasaki’s ideas that has become a hit with local residents and visitors alike is using the soymilk from tofu making in soft-serve ice cream. I also got to try it out! Although it doesn’t contain any coffee, it tastes similar to a soy latte. It is mildly sweet with a hint of soybean flavor. Really delicious.
Every region in Japan has its own distinctive take on tofu. The specialty of Fukushima Prefecture in northeastern Japan is tsutotofu (pronounced tsuto-dofu), shredded tofu wrapped in straw and simmered. It keeps longer than regular tofu and is infused with the fragrance of straw, giving it a unique and delicious flavor. Away to the southwest in Kyushu, Miyazaki Prefecture has natofu (pronounced na-dofu), a tofu packed with finely chopped and boiled seasonal vegetables. The colors of the vegetables against the whiteness of the tofu make it particularly pretty. If you visit Japan, definitely try to explore the regions outside big cities and sample their distinctive types of tofu!
In our next feature, we’ll follow our washoku explorers to a factory that produces a wide variety of umami-rich kombu products.
Text: Ayaka Miyamoto
Kaminashi 608, Nanto-shi, Toyama Prefecture, Japan
Naomi is the owner/chef of a restaurant in Portland, a US city with a reputation for good food. She's known for her innovative use of local ingredients.
A chef at one of the best seafood restaurants in New York, Erik is in charge of researching and developing new menu items.
A food writer based in both London and California, Susan also cooks for her own take-out meals business.