A Self-Guided Study of Japanese Food: Understanding Tofu

F&W’s editor, Dana Cowin, sets out to understand Japanese food traditions—but is soon impressed by how modern and trendsetting the cuisine really is.
Warm tofu in its own milk.
Warm tofu in its own milk. Photo © Lucy Schaeffer.

My first lesson was tofu. My classroom was EN Japanese Brasserie, a modernist izakaya, which is a Japanese-style pub serving drinks as well as small dishes to soak up the alcohol. EN’s specialty is tofu, which the cooks in the restaurant’s open kitchen meticulously prepare every hour-and-a-half for supreme freshness. For a food that can be made with only two ingredients, soy milk and nigari (a natural coagulant), tofu can be served in an enormous variety of ways, highlighting the Japanese ingenuity with the staples of their pantry.

In my EN tofu journey, I sampled tofu in many of its different forms: deep fried (agedashi), just the skin (yuba), in a soup, in a salad and gloriously on its own. That last preparation was my favorite of them all—a scoop of warm tofu resting in a pool of its own milk.

I spooned the tofu out of a cedar box and into a bowl with a bamboo spoon. The tofu’s consistency was like a light panna cotta. I thought hard about the flavor and tried to find the whisper of soybean within the dish. For a split second, I thought I had it, then it was gone. The delicacy of Japanese flavors made me work harder to understand them. I guess I must be used to getting punched in the taste buds when I eat.

Study of Japanese Food

PUBLISHED November 2009