Tofu can easily be considered one of Japan’s national foods. While tofu isn’t originally from Japan, it has grown by leaps and bounds to become something unique. Many people will look at tofu and think that it’s nothing special. In China, tofu is something that is added to various sauces to make it more flavourful. In Japan, the tofu has been created with such care and attention that it often doesn’t require a lot to make it taste good. Many people who think tofu is nothing more than healthy filler tend to enjoy tofu a lot more when they visit Japan. You cannot easily get the same quality of tofu in any other part of the world. While in the simplest terms, tofu is nothing more than a cheese made from soy milk. In reality, it is much more, and yet, completely different. There is no one way to describe tofu, and there is no one way to see it. It can come in various shapes and forms. Depending on the type of tofu, it can either be soft or hard, deep fried, or steamed. It’s up to your imagination to decide how to prepare or eat it.
In Japan, fresh tofu is by far the best. A plain type of tofu is generally very soft. It is so soft that it will melt in your mouth as you eat it. You often need a spoon, or very good chopstick skills to eat it nicely. Otherwise, you will end up shovelling it in pieces into your mouth. Either way, it’s very delicious. Tofu is often made in specific regions to utilize specific sources of water that can add new characteristics to the tofu. The natural water contains various combinations of minerals which create subtle changes in the tofu’s taste and texture. For most people, this won’t matter. It’s difficult to taste the very subtle differences between different types of tofu unless you are a professional or grew up eating tofu every day. One of the most common ways to see soft tofu in Japan is to have it served on a bamboo plate with a side of katsuoboshi (bonito flakes), green onion, grated ginger, and soy sauce. It’s a very simple and lovely combination that enhances the natural flavours of the tofu. You can find this sort of tofu in many restaurants. It’s common in izakaya and many teishoku restaurants will serve this as part of their set meals. It is also often eaten for breakfast as a quick and healthy meal. If you feel adventurous enough to make it yourself, in Japan, it’s very easy. Department stores often have the best tofu, grocery stores have a decent selection, and convenience stores have the basics. Even the basics can taste better than tofu sold in America, which tends to be more Chinese. Soft tofu also has small variations where they add black sesame, or other subtle things to change the characteristics of the tofu. Sometimes you can get a spicy variety, but this will inevitably overpower the taste of the tofu.
One traditional way to eat tofu is to make Yuba Tofu. It’s similar to bean curd in Chinese cuisine, yet extremely different. Generally, Yuba is the coagulated tofu skin that forms as you heat and cool soy milk. There isn’t much taste to this, and it’s mainly used in traditional Japanese cooking. It’s easy to find in Kyoto and Nikko if you visit these places. If you visit Kyoto, they traditionally serve it cooled on a plate. It’s not for everyone as even many Japanese people don’t enjoy it as much as regular soft tofu. If you are lucky enough to visit during the winter months, a visit to Nikko can provide a nice experience. Some shops offer you the chance to eat fresh yuba. Usually, yuba is made fresh everyday for restaurants, but in Nikko, some shops allow you to eat yuba from the “pot”. Yuba is usually made inside a square wooden “pot”. You are essentially given a long toothpick from which you are expected to skim the top of the simmering soy milk, pick up the yuba, and eat it. I’m sure this will taste much better than eating it in Kyoto, but unfortunately, I haven’t had much experience with yuba. I have eaten it in its cold form in Nikko, and it wasn’t as good as regular soft tofu.
Fried tofu is another method of enjoy tofu. Aburage, fried tofu, is a very common topping on Japanese soba. It has a slight soy taste to it, and makes a good combination with soba or udon. There is no need to add any meat or tempura as the abuage itself is more than enough. Aburage itself is linked with foxes with legend stating that the god, whose image is a fox, loves to eat aburage. How this started is unknown to me, but many of the dishes that use abuage have references to the fox. Inarizushi is one such dish. This is taking the fried tofu and wrapping it around a ball of rice making it into a piece of sushi. It’s a delicious combination that is nearly limitless. The basic style is to put plain rice inside the aburage, but you can easily add more to the rice. Common rice mixtures include sesame seeds, burdock, and or mushrooms. I would highly recommend trying inarizushi as it’s cheap and delicious. It also makes for a quick, healthy, and cheap snack.
These are some of the more basic ways to eat tofu in Japan. Of course, there are more ways that are inherent in Japanese cooking. You will find various types of tofu within miso soup, nabe, and other soup dishes. You can see it in Japanese-Chinese cooking. It’s hard to go a day in Japan without eating tofu or at least seeing it on the menu. Even if you don’t like tofu, I would still recommend trying it at least once while you are in Japan. It’s just too good to pass up.
To continue reading the Top 10 Foods to Eat in Japan, follow the links below:
- Okonomiyaki & Monjayaki
- Takoyaki & Yatai
- Fast Food Hamburgers (Japanese Style)
- Fast Food Hamburgers (Japanese Fusion Style)