Tofu, the delicate and versatile product made from soy beans and water, is not highly regarded in North American cuisine. I consider it tragically misunderstood.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people gag at tofu. But for a person to say “I don’t like tofu” is as sweeping as saying “I don’t like cheese” or “I don’t like bread”. In North America, tofu is marketed as a one dimensional health food that comes in various firmness. It has a reputation of being a bland protein supplement for non-meat eaters. Ick.
In contrast, many Asian cultures regard tofu as an integral part of the cuisine. Artisanal tofu can be commonly found prepared in creative ways, from savory applications to desserts. Frozen pressed tofu that’s defrosted into spongy slices is ideal for soaking up simmering stock. The paper thin soy sheets skimmed from the top of fresh soy milk is best enjoyed with a light sprinkling of salt. Dried soy sheets can be used as wrappers or deep fried until flaky and crisp. Lightly set tofu with a drizzle of ginger syrup makes a satisfying, silky pudding.
Korean, Chinese, and Japanese cultures all take pride in their own version of tofu. Generally speaking, I find that Chinese tofu (typically coagulated with gypsum) emphasizes on bold soy flavour. The Chinese will press, deep fry, or dry tofu to alter its texture and flavour. They even ferment tofu to achieve optimal pungency or umami for sauces and spreads.
From my limited experience, Korean tofu that’s set with salt or even sea water is milder in flavour. It is regarded for its soft, slippery texture. I have yet to visit Korea so I look forward to learning more about their varieties.
On our trip to Japan, my perspective on tofu was enlightened. Even while I waded through grocery stores, the vast selection of soy products had me panting. How do they achieve all these distinct textures and flavours? Moreover, the freshness and quality of the beans and water used were unparallelled. The most intriguing variety that I tried was a squishy and slightly bouncy goma (black sesame) tofu that reminded me of really soft mochi. It does not travel well, regrettably.
In Tokyo, a good friend recommended that we try the tasting menu at 空ノ庭, a restaurant that specializes in tofu. I’ll admit, I initially thought little of the idea but I knew my husband adores tofu so off we went. Looking back, I would have been such an idiot to skip out on this meal because it turned out to be one of our top dining experiences in Japan.
We were seated in a stylish, yet traditionally decorated room among bamboo and dimly lit partitions. The soothing music, warm lighting, and natural decor created a relaxing ambiance. Since we didn’t understand Japanese, we had no idea what or how many courses laid ahead. We were, however, exceptionally thrilled at the foreign concept that this place was “all you can drink”.
Let’s get onto the meal, shall we? (In a hurry, we left our DSLR in the hotel so please pardon the sub-par photo quality).
And there you have it, another sensational and unforgettable meal in Tokyo. Whether you love, can’t stand, or are indifferent towards tofu, I urge you to dine here when you travel to Tokyo for an elevated perspective on this overlooked ingredient. It will undoubtedly alter your outlook on tofu.
Shibuya: 東京都渋谷区桜丘町4-17 チェリーガーデン1F 150-0031, Japan
Ebisu: ４丁目-７-２ Ebisu, Tokyo 150-0013, Japan
We went to the Ebisu location but there’s one in Shibuya as well.