Most Americans have one of two opinions about tofu: 1) it’s an abomination, 2) it’s a convenient source of protein for vegetarians but not much more.
In Japan, however, tofu is appreciated as a special delicacy. Across the nation, you’ll find entire restaurants that are devoted to the many incarnations of bean curd and soy: its soft, velvety form as a custard; as firm chunks that have been grilled and slathered with a savory paste; in a slightly elastic, delicate material known as “yuba” (a.k.a. tofu skin). On my most recent trip to Japan, my family had a meal in one of these tofu restaurants.*
But first, a few words about tofu in Japan. Donald Richie, in his evocative and informative “A Taste of Japan,” says that Japanese envoys brought tofu back from China in the tenth century (where it had been invented many centuries before). The earliest document that contains reference to the food (1183), shows that it had become a normal part of Japanese food culture. A few hundred years later (1782), a book was published in Osaka called “One Hundred Rare Tofu Recipes.” It was a huge seller. Just one year later, “One Hundred More Rare Tofu Recipes” came out. One reason for these two hundred recipes is that although China generally considered tofu to be just an additive or an enhancement, Japan considered tofu to be a delicacy in its own right, leading to much experimentation**.
The meal began with a small bowl of yuba strips that had been cooked (steamed?) and lightly seasoned. To make yuba, a shallow container of soymilk is heated to nearly its boiling point, whereupon a skin forms on the surface. The skin is carefully removed with a skewer and hung to dry (here is a picture of yuba being made at the new Hodo Soy Beanery facility in Oakland). The duration of drying depends on whether the yuba will be sold fresh (as Hodo does at Bay Area farmers markets) or dried (as you’ll find in Asian grocery stores). Apparently, the meals at some tofu restaurants in Japan include table-top yuba making, as this advertising photo at the Modi Center in Machida, Tokyo illustrates. (A detailed history about yuba can be found at the SOYINFO CENTER.)
Next came two “fu pops”*** — pieces of fu, a paste made from wheat gluten and rice flour, that had been grilled and topped with a sauce. One sauce was probably made from green tea and miso, the other was white miso; both were garnished with white poppy seeds. Since this fu contained rice flour, it had the chewiness and elasticity similar to mochi, but not so much as to be unpalatable. (Much more on fu at the Washoku Food blog.)
A tofu-egg custard followed the fu. This was cooked in a ceramic bowl, a delicately-flavored custard hiding pieces of vegetables and scallop. My memory is hazy about the temperature of the custard, but I think it was room temperature.
The ‘main course,’ if such a term can be used, was a hot pot where meat and vegetables were cooked in soy milk on the table-top. The staff brought plates of vegetables — shavings of burdock root (gobo), daikon, carrot — a special type of pork, and two dipping sauces (a superb sesame-vinegar sauce and a basic bonito-kelp dashi). Diners would drop a few pieces into the pot, wait until they were cooked, and then dip them in one of the sauces before eating.
When we were done with the vegetables and meat, the staff came back with rice, pickles and miso soup (miso soup is typically served at the end of the meal in Japan, not the beginning, to give the diner a sense of fullness). Instead of simply giving us each a bowl of rice, the staff put the rice into the hot — and meat and vegetable infused — soy milk, making a porridge.
Finally, there were small desserts. Some were very Japanese, not terribly sweet, with subtle flavors and seasonal ingredients (chestnuts, for examples). Others were Japanese influences on imported ingredients, like green tea ice cream.
Overall, it was a splendid tour through a small part of the world of tofu and soy-based foods, increasing my appreciation for this much maligned ingredients.
I haven’t done much research on this, but in my food-media wanderings I have come across only restaurant in the U.S. that could call itself a “tofu restaurant, ” Umenohana in Beverly Hills. On KCRW’s Good Food in 2005, regular guest Jonathon Gold (restaurant critic for the L.A. Weekly ) talked about the restaurant, which he reviewed in the L.A. Weekly. However, the restaurant has since closed, according to Slashfood. Apparently, Umenohana is a Japanese chain with over 70 restaurants in Japan; the Beverly Hills location was their first foray into the U.S. market.
* Unfortunately, I forgot the name and exact location. What I remember is that it was attached to a hotel that occupied the upper floors of an office building near the Machida train station.
** The New Yorker’s 2005 Food Issue contained a fascinating article about the old ways of making tofu in modern Japan (only the abstract is free, sub. req’d for the full article).
*** Variations of these “pops” are made from tofu and called dengaku (according to Richie’s book); I’m not sure what they are called when they are made of fu and other non-tofu ingredients.