Whether found cut into small cubes in miso soup or fried and wrapped around inarizushi, tofu is an ingredient extremely common in Japanese cuisine. Nourishing and protein rich, it's one of the main ingredients in shojin ryori, the traditional vegetarian cuisine served in Buddhist temples.
What exactly is tofu? It's a paste made from soya beans. Originally from China, it has been widely eaten in Japan since the fifteenth century - although was first introduced by Chinese missionaries in the eighth century.
How is tofu made?
To make tofu, soya beans are first dried, then soaked in water in order to extract the milk. The latter then solidifies with the aid of a coagulating agent in order to make a kind of cream. The process is similar to that used to make cheese in Europe. Once curdled, the curd is then pressed and cut into blocks, which gives it the cubic shape which it is known for (when it's not yet sliced and/or fried, that is!). Finally, one last step is to rinse the tofu to firm it, before packing it. It's only after this process that it is packed and ready to be sent to restaurants or supermarkets.
Read more : Soybeans
The different types of tofu in Japan
In Japan, tofu takes many forms. From the same base, there is soft or silken tofu, the consistency of which is very close to a cream or a yogurt. Its taste is sweet and close to soy milk. It can be served cold or even as a dessert. Firm tofu holds its shape better, which facilitates its use in cooking. The difference in tofu consistency comes from the amount of water that is extracted from the soybean paste at the time of pressing: the longer the tofu dries, the firmer it will be. Firm tofu can be prepared in several ways: fried, dried, frozen, or fermented, there are many variations. Each of these varieties is used in different dishes in Japanese cuisine.
Hiyayakko, chilled tofu usually served with soy sauce, bonito fish flakes and green onion
Mabodofu, tofu in a spicy Chinese sauce
Inarizushi - sushi rice stuffed into a fried tofu pouch
Kitsune udon is noodle soup garnished with a thin fried slice of tofu
Japanese tofu recipes
Silken tofu is often served cold, in dishes such as hiyayakko, where it is married with other ingredients: grated ginger, dried bonito flakes, and green onions. It's sprinkled with soy sauce before eating if not already seasoned. It's a very popular dish in summer because it's so refreshing.
The tofu in miso soup and other hot dishes is often a firmer tofu. Among them is mabodofu, a dish of Chinese origin adopted by Japan consisting of diced tofu mixed with a spicy sauce made from fermented black beans, ground pork and red pepper. Tofu is also a common ingredient in nabe, meal dish during which each cooks its ingredients in a broth kept warm in the center of the table.
Read also: Nabemono, Japanese Hotpot
Tofu fried in slices (aburaage) is intended for various uses: sometimes slightly sweet, it's often used as small pouches to fill with sushi rice and make inarizushi, a type of sushi (without meat or fish) that you'll find everywhere in Japan; or else it is cut into triangles and placed on top of a bowl of kitsune udon, literally the "fox udon". Apparently this fried tofu is a favorite dish of foxes, which makes it possible to taste this dish almost everywhere around Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto!
The last example of a tofu dish belongs to the cuisine of the Buddhist monks and comes from Mount Koya - fried tofu is frozen then thawed again, before being served in a broth or a sauce. This preparation process gives the tofu a spongy texture which absorbs the taste of the liquid in which it is soaked. Koyasan monks regularly serve this type of tofu to their visitors, but it is a specialty that is found everywhere in Japan's shojin ryori vegetarian cuisine.