Go to any Japanese restaurant and you’ll find tofu on every menu. But what is tofu and why is it so popular in Japan? Let’s explore!
Tofu is made from curdling soy milk, a drink made from soybeans. The curdling process is similar to that of cheese when milk coagulates. In Japan, they use nigari (magnesium chloride salt) to help curdle the soymilk. This first step creates extra soft, soft, or silken tofu. If the tofu is pressed to remove the liquid, then firm and extra firm tofu are produced. These are often used in meals where ingredients are fried, whereas soft tofu is often used in soups.
Kyoto makes a special variety of tofu, unique to its region, creating a quality like no other. This process has been refined by Buddhist monks whose vegetarian diets press them to rely heavily on foods like tofu to supplement protein in their diet. The monks would use fresh mountain water to grow the soybeans to make the tofu. This mountain water is soft water, which means it does not contain the hard minerals that water from other regions might and is able to produce a finer, softer tofu. Nowadays, Kyoto remains the praised region for its tofu, and shops are competitive about perfecting their recipes and processes.
With tofu as a central ingredient of the Japanese diet, especially for the monks, there are a variety of ways to both cook and eat tofu. One of the renowned foods is yu-dofu. It is a simple stew consisting of kombu kelp and blocks of tofu. It can be served with toppings such as soy sauce, green onions, and dried bonito shavings (fish). A cold version of this is hiyayakko – blocks of chilled soft tofu topped with the same flavors as yu-dofu.
In miso soup, it is also common to add diced tofu.
Another popular tofu dish is tofu dengaku. Instead of a soup, this tofu is grilled on skewers with miso, another soybean product.
In other dishes, sliced and deep-fried tofu can be used. When prepared this way it is called abura-age and can then be stuffed with sushi rice to make inarizushi or can be added to noodle dishes.
In Kyoto, tofu fritters are often consumed. They are called hiryōzu and are a fried mixture of tofu, chopped vegetables, and sometimes egg.
So when visiting Kyoto, make sure to try out the different types of tofu they offer or even take a class and learn how to cook with tofu yourself: