When considering Japanese cuisine, and other aspects of Japanese culture, the idea of attaining perfection through refinement of skill is a core belief. Whether it is the measured choreography of the tea ceremony or the precise preparation of fish for sushi, there is a clear method and purpose to reach a determined outcome.
This dedicated focus on the process of things leads to both deeply rooted traditions and quite contrarily, great innovation. That’s because once something is mastered, experimentation can begin.
In Japan there are many examples of this, but one of the foods that embodies this concept unfortunately has a rather poor reputation in most Western countries. That food is tofu.
History of Tofu in Japan and the US
While there is no single origin story for what we now know to be tofu, there are documents in China suggesting that tofu, or a similarly made bean curd, has existed for over 2000 years. Japanese monks traveling throughout China during the Nara period, 710-784 CE, learned the recipe for this early form of tofu brought it back to Japan where it slowly spread throughout the country’s Buddhist monasteries, eventually becoming a staple inshōjin ryōri, or Buddhist temple cuisine. From there it was introduced to the aristocracy and the samurai classes, and by the Muromachi period, 1393-1572 CE, tofu had spread throughout all of Japan. However, it wouldn’t be another two hundred years before tofu became readily available to commoners.
Contrary to what one might think, it was also around this time that tofu was first mentioned in North America. In a January 1770 letter, Benjamin Franklin sent some “peas” to a friend stating that they make a great soup and that in China they even make a great “cheese” when ground and combined with sea water. This “cheese” is of course not cheese at all but rather tofu.
Despite this early mention of tofu on North American soil, tofu wouldn’t begin to have any real presence in public knowledge until the 1970’s and the beginning of the health-food movement. Unfortunately, when we compare the tofu varieties available in the US and Japan, which we will do shortly, it becomes quite clear that not much progress has been made in extolling its wonders to the world.
From Bean to Block: How Tofu is Made
Before delving into the different forms of tofu found in Japan, let’s take a look at how tofu is made.
The process is fairly simple. The only ingredients you need are soybeans, water, andnigari, a coagulant. First, dried soybeans are soaked until they are fully rehydrated before being put through a grinder and mixed with water to create the first stage of soymilk. This mixture is then cooked, often in a pressure cooker, before being put through a sieve, making soymilk. During this process two other essential tofu products are also created,okara andyuba,which we’ll come back to later.
The next step of the process is the most important, and that is when the coagulant, ornigari, is added to the soymilk.Nigari, which is magnesium chloride extracted from sea water, is very difficult to work with in that it requires proper technique when being stirred into the soymilk. Over-stirring can cause the curd to completely separate from the water, while under-stirring won’t form the curds that are needed. This is also the first step in determining the final firmness of the tofu.
Next, the curd is moved into cheesecloth-lined containers which are used to press the curds into blocks, removing excess water to attain the desired firmness in the process. And like that, you have tofu!
The Many Shapes of Tofu
As one can see, the general process of making tofu is rather simple, probably deceptively so. And it is this simplicity that has led to innovation and experimentation over time, the result of which is an astounding amount of variation in the ways that tofu can be made.
In a following article, we’ll take what we’ve learned about tofu from its origins in Buddhist monasteries to its modern interpretations and see how time and innovation have resulted in some interesting forms of tofu. (Hint: It’s more than just soft, firm, and silken!)
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@waruishouten) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food!
Smith, Ryan. “Ben Franklin May be Responsible for Bringing Tofu to America.”https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/ben-franklin-may-be-responsible-bringing-tofu-america-180968495/