To this day, I remember clearly the moment I found my roommate eating this brown minced-meat-like thing for dinner. “Oh,” I asked, “but aren’t you a vegetarian?” To my astonishment, he informed me that what he was eating was “tofu.” Now, I know there are many ways of cooking tofu, but that weird, meaty-looking edible material didn’t look anything at all like the tofu I’ve loved all my life…how could that stuff be tofu?!
It was then that I began to understand why so many people in the West have such a negative attitude toward tofu. Let’s not beat around the bush: lots of people think it’s disgusting. When they’re trying to be polite, they’ll say it’s “very healthy,” which is a coded way of saying the same thing. In Western culinary culture, tofu is considered nothing more than industrially produced health food—a sad, flavorless thing that vegetarians are forced to eat while telling themselves it’s meat.
It’s true that since tofu is made from soy milk, it’s full of protein, low in calories, and contains very little fat. Certainly, it’s great for health. However, it’s not like we’ve been eating tofu for more than 1400 years in Japan just because it is healthy. If Japanese people started eating this stuff over a millennium ago, it’s because we know how to make tofu mouth-watering!
In Japan, tofu is never considered something you eat because it’s good for you. And tofu is never processed to make it look or feel like something it’s not, could never hope to be, and obviously isn’t: meat.
In Japan, tofu is tofu: a traditional specialty served in the fanciest restaurants and appreciated for its subtle flavor. Tofu is so prized that you don’t even need to add that much in the way of sauce.
Take yudofu—the perfect winter dish for those who really appreciate tofu as tofu. Basically, it’s tofu boiled in water and a little konbu (sea kelp), served with a sprinkling of green onions and a couple of drops of soy sauce or vinegary ponzu sauce. As you can imagine, it’s very light and simple: so simple, in fact, that it demands that all the ingredients should be of the highest quality, starting with the water itself.
So what makes for good tofu? One good way of thinking about this is by analogy with artisanal cheese. Everyone knows that the cheap, industrial mozzarella sold in hard, square blocks in the supermarket has nothing at all to do with the fantastic, soft, buttery buffalo’s milk cheese made in the south of Italy, even if, confusingly, the two are sold under the same name. It’s the same with tofu: that mass-produced tofu in the heavy tetra-pack is to real tofu what Kraft Singles are to a finely ripened gruyère. (By the same token, that bizarre meat-substitute tofu my roommate used to eat would be more like the Cheez Whiz of tofu!)
In Japan, tofu used to be made fresh daily at neighborhood tofu shops. It was so soft that the vendors would sell it floating in water to keep it from collapsing. The tofu-maker would go around the neighborhood selling it from a cart, announcing his presence with a kind of bugle—a bit like an ice cream truck might do in the West. The neighborhood wives would go out to meet him with a container, take their tofu and eat it the same day it had been produced.
These days, that way of selling tofu has died out for the most part in Japan—even back home, mass production has taken its toll. Yet we still treat tofu like a fresh product that you have to eat as soon as possible after you’ve bought it.
In Kyoto, Japan’s tofu heartland, you can find some excellent artisanal tofu even today. This kind of tofu has a distinct taste of soybeans and a subtle, natural sweetness. The texture is perfectly smooth—like crème caramel, but much lighter. There are so many different tofu variants in Kyoto that some fine restaurants specialize in gorgeous dinners composed exclusively of tofu and tofu variants.
I know that the idea that somebody who is not a vegetarian would subject himself to a meal made entirely of tofu will strike many as perfectly bizarre. Living in Canada, I am made aware daily of just how big a gulf there is between North American and Japanese culinary cultures—but I really think it’s when you talk about tofu that that gap is most pronounced. Many people here just refuse to consider the possibility that tofu might be delicious.
But trust me: tofu is more than just a way to make foodies suffer for the sake of their health. If you find a tofu dish in a Japanese restaurant, don’t assume they’ve just put it there for the vegetarians. Tofu is for you, too.
Kanako Noda started helping her mom make dinner in Shiga, Japan, at the age of four. An artist based in Montréal by day, she evangelizes on the Japanese way of eating by night. "There's a fantastic, dazzling variety of Japanese dishes that Americans keep missing," she says, "because they can't see past the thick undergrowth of sushi bars everywhere." Kanako believes in real food made by real people using real ingredients, and is allergic to food gimmicks, straight-from-the-lab ingredients and diet fads of all kinds. Most of all, she's into introducing Westerners to Japanese common sense on what you should eat, when, how much, how and with whom. Her Japanese home cooking recipe blog is at KanakosKitchen.com.