The Tofu Aisle
While Westerners may see tofu as a specialty item, it is one of the most ubiquitous foods in Japanese cuisine. There is no stigma associated with vegetarian vs. non-vegetarian diets. In fact, tofu can often appear in other dishes that use meat or fish and is a staple in many hot-pot dishes.
In a previous article we learned some of the history behind tofu and how it is made. Now we’re going to look at the different kinds of tofu they have in Japan, and as you’ll see, the varieties of tofu and tofu-related products available in Japan is staggering.
In order to do so, we can separate different types of tofu into groups. First there is regular, general tofu that we would be more familiar with in the West. Then there are some varieties of tofu that are distinguished through their production methods and firmness. There are also tofu alternatives (or dishes that resemble tofu), and lastly, there are items made from the by-products of tofu production.
Tofu for Your Everyday Needs
Japan has several common forms of tofu:momendōfu (firm tofu),kinugoshidōfu, (silken tofu), andsofutodōfu (soft tofu), a median between the two. In addition to these, there arejūtendōfu, oborodōfu,andzarudōfu, which are distinguished by their production processes and rather interesting textures.
Jūten dōfuis more or less a quick form of tofu. Rather than going through the process of being pressed,nigari is added to a thick soymilk before being poured directly into plastic containers, which are then sealed and heated before being cooled. This process creates a tofu similar in texture tokinugoshi dōfu, or silken tofu, and is more conducive to mass-production than regular tofu.
Oborodōfu, also known as Okinawanyushitofu, is the un-pressed curds formed whennigariis added to soymilk. It is thought to be an indicator of the craftsperson’s skill as this process of creating the curds is the most essential part of making tofu.
Lastly,zarudōfuisoborodōfu that has been strained, forming firmer curds that are often used in salads and dressings.
A Little Variety Goes a Long Way
Tofu varieties can also be characterized by small differences from regular production methods.
On groupkatadōfu(firm tofu), is thought to hold the roots of tofu production in Japan.
In this category we haveshimadōfu, an extra-firm type of tofu originating from Okinawa, andōbakudōfu,one from Uji, a city in Kyoto Prefecture. In addition to these, there are other variations known asishidōfu,iwadōfu, anditsukidōfu to name a few, that either use thicker soymilk, longer time under pressure, different amounts ofnigari, or even sea water as the coagulant.
There are then varieties of tofu that aren’t actually tofu, but tofu-like dishes. The most famous of which isgomadōfu, or sesame tofu, which is made from ground sesame paste,kudzupowder, and water. It has a more custard-like texture than regular tofu and is a staple inshōjin ryōri.
Another popular non-tofu tofu dish istamagodōfu, or egg tofu. As the name suggests,tamagodōfu is made from eggs rather than soybeans and is a flan-like custard similar to another Japanese dishchawanmushi.
In addition to these, there are “tofu” dishes made from far more unexpected ingredients like peanuts, ground and jellied acorns or apricots, and even the Japanese blue oak tree nut.
From Tofu, By Tofu
The last group of tofu products consists of by-products from the production process and other ingredients made from tofu.
For starters there is soy milk, the first step in the tofu-making process. Then, as mentioned earlier, there is an ingredient known asokara.Okara,also referred to as soy pulp, is made from the solids strained from the soymilk after cooking. Rich in fiber and proteinokarais added to a variety of dishes, including the popular dishunohana,a mixture ofokara, soy sauce, mirin, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, and burdock root.
Next there isyuba, or tofu skin, which is formed during the process of cooking soymilk. As the soymilk is heated and then cooled, some of the proteins from the soybeans rise to the surface and coagulate, forming a skin-like product known asyuba.
Then there is a seemingly endless list of tofu products made from tofu itself.Aburaageandatsuageare two types of deep-fried tofu products,aburaagebeing thin sheets of tofu that end up like little pockets, andatsuage being regular blocks of tofu that have been fried until their exteriors are golden brown. There is alsokoyadōfu, or tofu that has been freeze dried and has a light, spongy texture, great for absorbing sauces and broths. Possibly less popular, but delicious nonetheless, istōfuyo, or an Okinawan fermented tofu product. Another staple isyakidōfu, or blocks of grilled tofu often used in hotpots like sukiyaki. To round out the list, there is a dish known asganmodoki, a fried fritter made from a mixture of mashed tofu and vegetables, often carrots, lotus root, and burdock.
More Than Meets the Eye
As one can see, the image of tofu being a white block of gelatinous blandness is a result of a lack of exposure to what can be made from it and with it. Even the simplest tofu dish,hiyayakko, a dish consisting of fresh chilled tofu garnished with grated ginger, katsuobushi flakes, scallions, and soy sauce, can be incredible in its subtlety and depth of flavor.
Fresh tofu is difficult to come by in North America, but that shouldn’t stop you from giving tofu a try, be it in something as simple ashiyayakko, or as strong and flavorful asmabodōfu. Explore what you can make with tofu and you might just find a new favorite dish!
Try making one of these tofu recipes:
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/