Tofu comes in a surprising number of forms. The humble soy bean has given rise to a huge number of products, from sauces, curds, milk, edamame and even natto – fermented soy beans, filling the social niche of cheese for the Eastern world. All evidence of an incredible resourceful product. Essentially, tofu is just coagulated soy milk.
As with my first experience of olives, many many years ago (those rubbery black things related to tyres that appeared on ’80s pizzas) the difference between poor tofu and quality product is profound. My only exposure to tofu, until I came to Australia, was soft, tasteless silken, usually unadorned. I hated it. The texture, the stony blandness, the intimation that the damn stuff was in some way ‘doing you good’ – meat free protein virtuosity. The range of Thai and Malaysian food in Sydney started to open my eyes to tofu possibilities – deep fried is good. Deep fried anything usually is.
But it wasn’t until I discovered Japanese cuisine proper that I realised it was possible to have an entire meal based around tofu – and not be bored by the stuff. Somewhere in the Hakone region on my last trip to Honshu I even had a keiseki style tofu set from a restaurant specialising in yuba – bean curd skin. Everything was delightfully different, beautifully flavoured and ranged from savoury to sweet, punchy to delicate.
So this time around I was determined to try more – especially as Kyoto, with its soft water, produces a tofu which is famed throughout Japan. I certainly didn’t set out to eat as much tofu as possible, but that seems to be what happened, somehow. I managed another wonderful, tofu based, vegetarian keiseki meal at Taizo-in Buddist temple, Kyoto, during one of their four cherry blossom special dinners this year, an unforgettable experience. We bought takeaway tofu dishes from market stalls. We ate a lunch composed almost entirely of tofu. Tofu comprised at least one dish in many of the meals we ate.
In Nishiki market, Kyoto, of course there were many stalls selling a huge range of tofu / yuba products, and we even saw a sign in the market claiming to sell tofu doughnuts. Sadly I just couldn’t find them, much to my dismay. That would’ve been a thing – the marriage of doughnut and bean curd. What could possibly go wrong?
Fancy packages come as standard
So naturally I was keen to try Toyouke-Jaya, a tofu specialist as recommended by Lonely Planet, where they not only sell all forms of tofu and yuba from their street facing stall, but also have a cafe/restaurant covering at least 3 tiny stories.
It’s in an area of Northern Kyoto packed with beautiful temples and palaces, so it was a marvelous excuse to marry food and sightseeing; to fit in a tofu lunch between rattling bus journeys from the stunning Golden Pavilion and my favourite shrine in all Kyoto, Ninna-Ji. Also, whilst we didn’t have time to visit it, it’s practically opposite the entrance to the Kitano Tenman-Gu shrine.
We were expecting a wait for a table as it was a gorgeous day in prime cherry blossom viewing season; but I was a tiny bit disheartened to see such a long queue, so late in the lunch period! At least the queue was formed of Japanese and didn’t appear to be full of tourists – always a good sign, I think, and we did what we usually do in these circumstances; agreed to give it 15 minutes and see how far we’d moved. A plastic coated menu (full of pictures – hurrah!) was passed back along the line as we waited, whetting our appetites, and a staff member reviewed our table numbers. All in all we felt we were being looked after so decided to wait – and after half an hour of inching forwards, we were in! It was gone 2pm by then and sadly all my lovely looking choices from that laminated menu were sold out – a good sign I guess, promising of freshly made ingredients, high turn over and so forth, but not so great if it was your first, second and third choices…
I pointed randomly at a likely looking picture in the end and hoped for the best. I wasn’t disappointed – my side dish of fried tofu skins sandwiching a spring onion filling was so good we immediately ordered a second plateful.
We’d started with a silken tofu taster dish which I’d snapped (above) but I’m afraid have utterly forgotten anything about – must have been less interesting than it looks, eh?? Well, that’s silken tofu for you…
Mr C’s noodley, tofu skin broth looked equally yummy:
There was a savoury mochi dish as well, gorgeously presented on tiny wooden skewers, each with their own flavoured topping.
To be honest, if I wasn’t nursing a horrid, horrid, izakaya inflicted hangover, I’d have tucked right into their sake menu as well, especially as they had a range of my all time favourite – can’t get it in Australia – nama genshu (unfiltered, unpasteurised). It was a lovely hour, sat in one of the tiny rooms (only space for 4 or 5 tables per floor) sharing a table with a mother and daughter in full kimono, looking out onto the park opposite in the sunshine. Highly recommended if you’re ever in northern Kyoto.
One of the most pleasant tofu related surprises occurred in the unlikely setting of the Osaka Swissotel breakfast bar. There, tucked away amongst the usual Japanese breakfast suspects – rice, natto, fish – was a small bowl of a pale, porridge like substance surrounded by a selection of optional toppings. (Though these may have been intended for use with the nearby congee pot, on reflection.)
Loving to try new foods – and especially pleased by things I’ve never even heard of, I tucked in and ladled many a topping into my bowl, until I was brought up short by the politely chuckling Japanese breakfast manager. She explained that this was a dish she called Okara, popular and traditional, and I was eating it in entirely the wrong way (there would be rules, wouldn’t there!). The topping, it seems, were indeed not required. I found it to have a slightly granular texture, very faintly fishy, with small pieces of vegetables dotted about it, possibly pickled ones. It wasn’t a strong taste and it was difficult to pinpoint the flavours. I now realise that okara itself is pretty much neutral, so all the subtle flavours I was trying to name were almost certainly added to it afterwards by the chef on duty that day.
Later on I looked up this wonderful stuff and found it to be a by product of the tofu making industry; basically the fibrous bean pulp strained from the milk – highly nutritious, but usually used for animal feed due to it’s blandness and perishability. Blandness shouldn’t be a barrier in it’s own right – otherwise the humble potato would have disappeared from the culinary scene eons ago – so I’m intrigued. Seems this is a versatile substance worthy of a post in it’s own right, though I’ll restrict myself to saying I wish I’d seen it elsewhere whilst in Japan, so that I could try it plain and know what it actually tasted like. I recommend this article by Just Hungry should you wish to know more. Just Hungry even has a tasty looking recipe for tuna and okara sandwich toppings, if you should find yourself in possession of a quantity of the stuff.
All in all, I think I can no longer describe myself as anti tofu, a soy sceptic. There is such a range of varieties and ways to serve it, that it’s just limiting my horizons to do so – but I’m happy to admit that silken tofu still doesn’t really do it for me as a savoury dish. Served sweetened as a dessert though as the Chinese dish tau fu fah – that’s the way to go!