When you think “tofu,” what comes to mind?
In my hometown, school buses painted with psychedelic stripes are still waiting where their long-haired drivers parked them almost fourty years ago. These young people came to rural northern California hoping to raise their children (some of whom are now around my age) on a diet of peace, freedom, clean air and organic vegetables. Needless to say, tofu is popular there, particularly as an alternative to meat and dairy – it makes appearances in such unexpected places as hot dogs, pasta sauces and ice cream bars.
Tofu Pups and Tofutti Cuties were okay (and are now a couple of the unmistakable flavors of my childhood), but in general I have to say that as a kid I wasn’t a big fan of all this “hidden tofu.” Tofu, in my mind, was always pretending to be something else, and with limited success.
Of course, the moment you eat something expecting it to taste like something else, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. I blamed the tofu for its shortcomings. I came to resent it for its dishonesty. It wasn’t until I came to Japan that I learned to appreciate tofu for what tofu is: simple, mild and filling, and completely deserving of treatment on its own terms.
In Japan, tofu comes in many varieties, and each variety lends itself to many different uses. Chilled silken kinu doufu (絹豆腐) topped with soy sauce and grated ginger is a simple and elegant dish for a hot day. Firm tofu is well known in miso soup and nabe, but its applications are myriad. After being pressed to remove water, it soaks up flavors like a champ, and can sauteed, baked or fried. I like to cut it in to thick, flat peices, cover it in a mixture of miso, mirin and diced green onions, and bake it in the oven until it browns.
Simple, mild and filling – oh, and did I mention it’s cheap, too? If you’re living in Japan, tofu and its soy-derived cousins, okara and yuba can be inexpensive sources of protein. A largeish block of firm momen doufu (木綿豆腐) costs a little over 100 yen, and silken tofu is often only 50 yen.
Tofu is low in fat and high in protein, but in Japan isn’t classified primarily as a meat alternative, or even as a health food. Tofu is tofu. It may owe some of its popularity in Japan to its adoption by strictly vegetarian Buddhist monks who were looking for an alternative protein source – even so, I’d argue that the “tofu is the antithesis of meat” mentality I grew up with doesn’t exist here. Notably absent are the profusion of tofu-based meat substitutes so common at home. It’s not unusual for an ostensibly “tofu” dish to contain meat it some form.
This difference in thought can be understandably irksome for vegetarians. But maybe, in the greater scheme of things, its a blessing in disguise. As anyone who has ever eaten a Tofu Pup will tell you, expecting congealed soy protein to be “like meat” is silly. But allowed to walk beyond the shadow of meat, tofu shines with a light all its own.
If you and tofu have a great relationship already, you can go ahead and skip down to the recipe. If not, if the word “tofu” makes you think “health food” or “fake meat,” I urge you to give it another go. Don’t hide that tofu. Love it for what it is.
There’s one tofu recipe that has become a staple for me. It made its first known public appearance in a bestselling tofu cookbook, Tofu Hyakuchin (豆腐百珍 – 100 Tofu Delicacies), printed in Osaka – in 1782.*
From the Hokuriku Expat Kitchen, I bring you:
Kaminari Doufu (雷豆腐 – Thunder Tofu)
- 1 block of momen (firm) tofu
- 1-2 tablespoons sesame oil (goma abura – ごま油)
- 1 1/2 – 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- Garnish: grated daikon, katsuo flakes, diced green onion, chopped fresh greens – to taste
- Drain as much water from the tofu as you can. This can be accomplished by leaving it under something heavy, either in a strainer or wrapped in paper towels.
- Once the liquid has been drained and disgarded, break the tofu small, lumpy bits with your hands.
- Heat a small amount of cooking oil in a frying pan. Add tofu, and cook on medium high heat until most of the moisture has been removed. The texture of the tofu should now resemble dry scrambled eggs.
- Drizzle the sesame oil over the tofu and toss together until thoroughly combined.
- Reduce heat to low. Add soy sauce and toss together.
- Serve hot, topped with grated daikon radish, katsuo flakes and finely chopped green onions. Can be served as a side dish, or over a hot bowl of rice. Serves two.
* Tofu Hyakuchin was so popular that it inspired many spinoffs, (including this recent one from major tofu manufacturer Sagamiya), and has also been “translated” into modern Japanese and republished under the same title. If you like cooking and history, check it out!