Japanese tofu is one of those ingredients at the supermarket that’s often overlooked by the average shopper in the West, but it’s a staple in all Japanese households. With its creamy and soft texture, tofu may seem too bland or simple at first sight, but this versatile ingredient is actually perfect for absorbing flavors, and comes in a few different varieties.
Tofu is one of the most important ingredients in Japanese cooking, full of protein and nutrition. Tofu tastes quite mild, and because of this, you can easily use it in all kinds of sweet and savory dishes. It’s a versatile Japanese ingredient, found in every supermarket and even in convenience stores, with ample health benefits. An excellent source of protein, tofu contains amino acids, iron, and calcium to name a few. And because you can use it in place of meat, tofu is beloved by vegans and vegetarians all over the world.
Also known as “bean curd,” tofu has over 2,000 years of history in Japan. It originated from China, the word "tofu" stemming from the Chinese word “doufu.” After visiting China to study Buddhism, Japanese monks brought back their knowledge about tofu to Japan during the Nara period.
As a staple ingredient of the vegetarian diet of Buddhist monks, and a main component in shojin ryori (Japanese vegetarian Buddhist cuisine), tofu was eaten as a source of protein and was even used as a spiritual offering at shrines. Tofu gradually became popular among noble and samurai classes, and then during the Edo period, tofu became available to the masses. Now, tofu is used in many types of dishes in the Japanese cuisine, including shojin cuisine.
Japanese tofu only calls for a few ingredients and it can be easily made at home. The ingredients needed include milk from soaked soybeans, water, and coagulating ingredients like nigari or Epsom salt.
The first step in making tofu is to soak the soybeans and let them soften. When they are ready, the beans are pureed until smooth and strained through cheesecloth to extract the fresh soy milk.
Now, if you’re thinking of throwing away the leftover pureed soybeans (called okara) don’t! There are many recipes in which you can use okara and of course, the Japanese believe that nothing should be wasted, especially food.
After the soy milk has been extracted, it’s time to add the coagulating ingredient. It may be hard to find nigari, which is the preferred coagulating ingredient for tofu, but you can always use other ingredients such as calcium sulfate.
After you mixed the soy milk and your chosen coagulating ingredient, pour it into molds. If you desire a firmer tofu, you can always apply some weight on top and leave it for at least 20 minutes.
Because of its gentle taste, tofu can be used in so many recipes. One interesting characteristic of tofu is its ability to absorb flavors, and it goes best in recipes that call for marinades and sauces.
Whether you’ve made your own batch of tofu or bought it from the supermarket, tofu comes in many textures and forms. It’s an ingredient that you can easily add to your dishes. Stir-fried, deep-fried, steamed, chilled, you can almost do anything with tofu, even use it in desserts like pudding!
If you’re not familiar with how you can use this magical Japanese ingredient, do keep in mind that there are different types of tofu, each with different uses.
Here are three main types of tofu used in Japanese cooking:
First is kinu tofu (silken tofu), also referred to as “fresh tofu.” Kinu tofu got its name from its super creamy and silky texture. Unlike the slightly firmer momen tofu, kinu tofu breaks apart easily, so it is not ideal for stir fries. It has not had excess liquid strained out, so kinu tofu is quite soft, and almost flan-like in texture.
The second type of Japanese tofu is momen tofu (cotton tofu). This type of tofu is made the same way as kinu tofu, but with an extra step added. It undergoes the straining process of removing the excess water and whey from the soybeans, using a cotton cloth in the process. Unlike kinu tofu, momen tofu has a firmer and spongier texture that most people find easy to cook with since it retains its shape. Toss some into miso soup or feel free to stir-fry or deep-fry cubes of momen tofu.
The last type of tofu is called aburaage (deep-fried tofu). This is another very common type of tofu found in everyday Japanese meals, made by twice deep-frying thin slices of tofu. Pre-made aburaage can be found in supermarkets, ready to be used in miso soup. It also comes in ready-made pouches that can be stuffed with vinegared sushi rice to make inarizushi. Another variety of aburaage is called atsuage (thick, deep-fried tofu).
Healthy and delicious, it’s no wonder tofu is one of the most beloved ingredients in Japanese cuisine. Whether you want to make tofu at home or experience authentic tofu dishes, tofu has got to be one of the things on your list to eat when you’re in Japan.
Try these tofu restaurants in Tokyo for a flavorful experience.
Tofuya Ukai is a Tokyo restaurant that offers private room settings, a stunning Japanese garden, and an excellent menu offering a variety of tofu dishes. Their tofu is always freshly made every day, using spring water and carefully-chosen soybeans. Their tofu is quite unique, with a subtly sweet taste. The tofu dishes are complemented with over refreshing and seasonal veggie-forward dishes. Their Tofu Cuisine Course will cost 3,990 yen, while their Tofu Kaiseki (traditional japanese multi-course meal) Course is 6,480 yen. Tofuya Ukai is known as one of the best tofu restaurants in Tokyo, dedicating extreme attention to detail to their craft.
If you appreciate good food that comes beautifully presented, then Tofu Ryori Sorano is the tofu restaurant for you. It’s basically a haven for anyone who loves tofu. They serve small plates, tapas-style, and have dishes for vegetarians and omnivores alike. Their bestsellers include tofu dumplings and fried chicken wrapped in tofu skin. Tofu Ryori Sorano also has a great sake and beer selection, and you can end your meal with a light and delicious slice of rare tofu cheesecake or tofu tiramisu.
Tofu no Futaba is a tofu restaurant in Tokyo that was also included in our article, Vegetarian-Friendly and Vegetarian Restaurants in Tokyo. Established in 1907, this tiny tofu shop is still going strong, offering a range of tofu products such as yuba (bean curd skin) and soy ice cream. They are famous for their soy milk donuts, which are very mildly sweet, a healthier alternative to Mister Donut, so be sure to pick one up while they’re hot and fresh!