A Behind-the-Scenes Peek Into Tofu, a Versatile Staple in Japanese Cuisine, With Tofu Masters

In recent years, tofu has exploded in popularity in the West among people following plant-based diets thanks to its high protein content and ability to be adapted to almost any dish. However, there are still many who are unaware of the capabilities of this versatile ingredient. Tofu has been a staple in Japanese cuisine for centuries, and the country offers numerous variations that satisfy any palate or diet. For this edition of our “Culture of Japan” series, we visited Tofu Shokudo, a specialty restaurant in Tokyo where the tofu craftsmen taught us all about how tofu is made and different ways to enjoy it.

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What Is Tofu? Beloved in Japan Since Ancient Times

What Is Tofu Made Of?

Tofu, also known as “bean curd,” is a type of soybean-based food that is essentially soy milk in a solid form. It has a smooth, soft texture and light soybean flavor. Tofu generally consists of only two main ingredients: soybeans and “nigari” (bittern).

The Origin of Tofu in Japan

It is said that tofu originated in China over two thousand years ago and was brought over to Japan by Japanese envoys during the Nara (710 - 794) or Heian periods (794 - 1185). It became a staple of vegetarian “shojin ryori” (Buddhist monk cuisine) during the Heian period, which in turn became popular among the aristocratic and warrior classes and was enjoyed by these select groups of people for many years. It wasn’t until the Edo period (1603 - 1868) that tofu spread to the masses, and has been a valued ingredient ever since.

Is Tofu Good For You? A Popular Meat Alternative or Accent

Due to the high protein content, versatility, and juicy texture of tofu, it has become an irreplaceable staple in plant-based diets. However, having been key in Japanese cuisine for so long, even people in Japan who do not partake in plant-based diets regularly incorporate tofu into their meals, whether it be the focus or an addition to another type of protein such as meat.

As tofu is low in carbs and sugar, it is also a popular choice for those on diets, and can be used as a substitute for fattier proteins or carbohydrates. Filled with vitamins and minerals, it is considered to be an extremely healthy food.

Is Tofu Vegan and Gluten-Free?

Based on its main two ingredients, basic, traditional tofu is vegan and is considered to be gluten-free. As mentioned above, it is a popular choice among vegans and vegetarians.

Learning All About Tofu at the Specialty Tofu Restaurant "Tofu Shokudo”

We have a lot of foodies here at tsunagu Japan, so it is no surprise that we are all very excited when we get to observe behind-the-scenes looks into Japan’s food culture. I myself tend to stray away from eating meat, and as it is healthy, substantial, and delicious, I am a huge fan of tofu. So of course, I was ecstatic to witness the creation and preparation of one of my favorite foods at Tofu Shokudo in Tokyo.

As indicated by its name, Tofu Shokudo is a tofu specialty shop with tofu craftsmen who make tofu from scratch on-site, which is then used to make scrumptious soy-based dishes that are served in the restaurant.

The restaurant stands on a quiet corner just a short walk from the bustling Ebisu Station in downtown Tokyo. Its name in a retro-style font drew us in, and immediately upon entering the storefront, we were greeted by windows gazing into the in-house workshop where the tofu craftsmen make fresh tofu daily and where we would get to observe the tofu-making process first-hand. As popular as tofu is, it is not common to get to see it being made, so this was a unique opportunity to get a better understanding of this beloved food and watch soybeans being turned into tofu. 

The craftsmen at Tofu Shokudo graciously welcomed us, quickly stepping away from their tasks to whisk us into the energetic workshop, filled with steam and the sounds of trickling water and whirring machines. It is also visible from the dining area, showcasing to customers how fresh the restaurant’s tofu is and offering a peek into the creation of the shop’s star ingredient. With brisk and intentional movements and without losing any focus, they immediately began explaining what was happening as they moved through each step while bouncing around the workshop.

Simple Yet Delicious - How to Make Tofu According to Japanese Tofu Masters

The process begins with plump soybeans that have soaked in water overnight and have grown twice in size. Tofu Shokudo employs only domestic soybeans for its tofu–specifically “shirome” soybeans from Miyagi Prefecture, which are known for their sweetness and richness. 

The expert eyes of the tofu craftsmen can effortlessly tell if the beans have soaked up enough water, which affects the tofu-making process. Beans that have not done enough soaking are tougher to process and can lead to uneven tofu textures. The craftsmen are also extremely careful with the temperature of the water, as even a change of one or two degrees can affect the state of the beans. 

The beans are then skillfully ground into a paste and processed until out comes smooth, silky soy milk. Although many manufacturers use an anti-foaming agent during this process, Tofu Shokudo instead sends the soybeans through a special tank that allows the foam to be removed without an additive.

The soy milk is then strained, and with safety being of utmost importance at Tofu Shokudo, is boiled for sterilization and cooled before then being turned into tofu.

Depending on how the delectable soy milk is handled, it can be transformed into several types of tofu, including “momen” (firm) and “oboro” (soft). The extra pulp that is removed as the soybeans are turned into soy milk is known as “okara” which is also edible, with a pleasant, fluffy texture.

Momen and oboro tofus are made with the same ingredients, but the finished product differs depending on the handling process. For both, nigari is added to the soy milk to stiffen it. The mixture is then either left alone to create creamy oboro tofu, or pressed to create firm momen tofu.

There is much care that goes into making the tofu at Tofu Shokudo, and the expertise of the craftsmen is evident in their quick and strong yet gentle movements. Tofu can be a fickle food to produce, and the craftsmen told us that in their eyes, making the tofu uniformly is the most difficult part of the process. 

The craftsmen also told us that while some parts of their momen-making process were secret, the finished product is beautiful and twice the size of most supermarket options. Their oboro tofu is also remarkably silky. They even fry blocks of tofu made with thinner soy milk as well, creating beautiful, golden-brown "aburaage" (thin deep-fried slices of tofu) that are thick and juicy.

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What Does Tofu Taste Like? Experiencing the Versatility of Tofu at Tofu Shokudo

Tofu does not have a very strong flavor and is actually an incredibly versatile ingredient that can be prepared in numerous ways to fit a variety of palates. Whether it be lightly seasoned and eaten almost as-is, simmered or cooked in savory sauces, or fried and given a new texture, there is a variation for anyone to enjoy. If you are looking to experience the versatility of tofu in one place, Tofu Shokudo’s menu is sure to delight all who visit.

Tofu Shokudo’s mouthwatering menu allows customers to enjoy soy and tofu dishes from various cuisines such as Japanese, Western, and Chinese. Wanting to sample a range of the flavors available at Tofu Shokudo, we ordered “Tofu Rice” (Tofu Meshi), ”Freshly made Chilled Tofu” (Oboro-dofu), “Thick Fried Tofu” (Atsuage), and “Tofu Pudding” (Tofu Purin) for dessert. 

Although not everything is vegetarian/vegan-friendly, there are such options available (including Freshly made Chilled Tofu without the “dashi-joyu” seasoning and Tofu Pudding), so the menu can accommodate people with all kinds of diets. Tofu Shokudo also has an English menu, making it easy to navigate and order all the different dishes.

Tofu Rice (Tofu Meshi)

“Tofu Rice” is one of Tofu Shokudo’s signature dishes and features a thick slab of momen tofu that has been simmered in a beef and soy sauce-based broth atop a fluffy bed of steamed rice. Tofu Shokudo’s freshly made tofu soaks up the umami of the soup, exuding a faint saltiness that is balanced out by the mellow sweetness of the rice. The tofu is dense and hearty, leaving nothing to be desired!

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Freshly made Chilled Tofu (Oboro-dofu)

The “Freshly made Chilled Tofu” includes a mound of smooth, plain tofu along with seasonings of olive oil, “dashi-joyu” (blend of soy sauce and fish stock), and salt. The tofu itself was creamy and slightly sweet and is perfectly enjoyable on its own, making it an ideal option for those looking to enjoy the original taste of the tofu. The different seasonings add complexity to the tofu, and it vaguely felt as though we were eating high-quality cheese when we added the olive oil and salt.

Thick Fried Tofu (Atsuage)

Fried tofu is one of my favorite foods, and I was delighted when I popped a bite of the crunchy “Thick Fried Tofu” into my mouth. As Tofu Shokudo fries its tofu in-house, the outside was delightfully crisp while the inside was still smooth and fluffy. With toppings such as grated daikon radish, bonito flakes, green onion, and a mildly sweet sauce, the addicting flavor and varied textures kept us continuously reaching for the plate.

Tofu Pudding (Tofu Purin)

When the “Tofu Pudding” appeared before us, we didn’t know what to expect, as the appearance was unlike any pudding we had seen before. However, as soon as we tasted it, we were blown away by the delectable caramel flavor that overflowed from the bite-sized pieces. The faint, distinctive hint of soy reminded us that this pudding was indeed made from tofu, but the incredible creaminess and burnt caramel-esque flavor transformed the ingredient into a wonderful dessert.

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Tips on How to Choose and Prepare Tofu

Tofu Shokudo not only serves its tofu in its restaurant, but also has a display case at its front where customers can buy all sorts of soy products, from thick blocks of tofu prepared in various ways to fresh soy milk and soy-based dishes and desserts. However, tofu is an easily perishable product, so it is recommended that you only purchase these items if you are planning on eating or are able to refrigerate them soon afterward.

If you are looking and are able to tackle whipping up some tofu dishes yourself, you will be spoilt for choice with the items lining Tofu Shokudo’s case. As demonstrated by Tofu Shokudo’s menu, there are numerous ways to prepare tofu, but the texture is extremely important in deciding which type of tofu to choose for the dish you are planning to make.

Oboro Tofu

As oboro tofu is incredibly soft, it can fall apart quite easily, so it is usually best if just dressed with a sauce or topping and eaten as-is, such as dishes like “hiyayakko” (chilled tofu with garnishes). This also allows one to enjoy the pure, refreshing flavors of the tofu.

Momen Tofu

Momen tofu is sturdier and can be adjusted to work with specific dishes. It can handle being tossed around a frying pan, simmered, and fried among other cooking methods, allowing the chef to get creative with the preparation. This, along with tofu’s subtle taste that does not fight with other flavors, makes it a great meat substitute for a variety of dishes.

Fried Tofu (Aburaage, Atsuage)

The fried exteriors of tofu such as aburaage and atsuage easily soak up sauces, helping concentrate the flavors. It also holds the tofu together, so it does not easily break apart when being cooked. It is perfect for dishes that need a protein with a fried texture or that holds onto sauces.

Introduce Your Palate to the Wonders of Tofu

Tofu’s subtle flavor and wealth of nutrients make it a wonderful addition to all kinds of dishes, whether it be as an accent or the star of the show. For those who are looking to experience the versatility of tofu for themselves, Tofu Shokudo’s extensive menu is sure to please all who visit, no matter their dietary preferences.

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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About the author

Kim
Kim S.
Originally from the United States, Kim is now based in Tokyo. Her love for traditional Japanese culture takes her to quiet corners and holes-in-the-wall all across Japan, looking for retro atmospheres, local vibes, and places that make her feel like she's traveled back in time. One of her favorite pastimes is searching for delicious coffee shops and hidden gems in all 47 prefectures.
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