How do you usually eat Tofu? In the Japanese repertoire, there are plenty of recipes to choose from, from Yu-dofu and Nabe to Miso soup, Kenchin-jiru, Agedashi tofu and Hiya-yakko, a popular fresh tofu recipe that I’ve not yet presented here.
In this recipe, I show you how to make a kind of fancied-up hiya-yakko using sesame oil rather than soy sauce. Why the need to fancy it up? Because, while simple Hiya-yakko sure is delicious, it’s just a little bit too plain a dish to serve guests. If you want to make a fresh tofu dish that’s sure to impress, this recipe is the solution for you.
A note of caution: these uncooked tofu recipes will turn out impossibly light and delicious if you use the right kind of tofu. Really, they live or die on the quality of the tofu you manage to get. In Kyoto, where silken tofu is a prized artesanal specialty made fresh each morning by traditional craftsmen, it’s hard to go wrong. Here in Montreal, where the tofu is ok but not necessarily fantastic, results can vary. Wherever you are, you should only try these using the best quality, softest silken tofu you can find.
And a tip: in North America, some quite decent Korean brands market this type of tofu as “extra silken”. That’s the kind you want.
A hotpot cooked at the dinner table, Nabe is the quintessential Japanese winter dining experience. With Nabe, you’re cooking and eating in “real time”, which imposes its own pace on a meal: it’s just not physically possible to eat a Nabe in a rush.
That probably helps explain why Nabe conjures up that special kind of conviviality you get when it’s cold outside and you’re huddled around a warm pot sharing a leisurely meal with friends, family or business associates.
Strictly speaking, “Nabe” refers not to the recipe but to the hardware: the clay pot itself. In Japan, everybody eats from a single Nabe, sort of like with a fondue.
All kinds of stuff can go into a nabe, from thin slices of meat (for “shabu shabu” and “sukiyaki”) to meatballs (“chanko-nabe”) to salmon and miso (“ishikari-nabe”) to poisonous blowfish (“te-chiri”).
There’s even a fun dinner party game you can play, called Yami-nabe, where you turn the lights off and each guest has to put a secret ingredient in the pot: the fun is in trying to guess what all the different ingredients are. I remember playing this one time when I was in college and a friend of mine put a McDonald’s McNugget in our yami-nabe: we never invited him again!
Out of the dozens of nabe variations out there, Yose-nabe is one of the simplest and most popular: a light broth flavored with sea kelp and starring, chicken, shrimp, tofu, mushrooms and vegetables. Readers in Quebec may think of it as “Fondue Chinoise Japonaise”, only with none of that weird curry mayonnaise. And with a lot more vegetables in it.
In Montreal, you can find Japanese Nabe clay pots starting at $25 in Chinatown, and we just use a simple portable electric burner to put on the table ($19.95 at Canadian Tire). But if you have an electric pot for Fondue Chinoise, or even a normal Fondue pot, those will work fine. You just need something to keep the ingredients simmering.
This is probably the version of Miso soup Western people are most familiar with, since it’s the one almost always served at sushi places. Still, you should remember: this is a miso soup, not the miso soup.
It’s easy to see why this version is so popular, though: simple, delicious, and easy to match with any Japanese dish, it’s always tempting to fall back on this recipe when the time comes to make 1-dish 1-soup.
Nothing has done more to harm tofu’s reputation in the West than the sense that it’s “health food”. Lets face it: nobody wants to eat health food. “Health food” is just another way of saying “food that you eat despite the way it tastes”.
My philosophy is that you should never eat something primarily because it’s healthy: you should eat food because it’s delicious. The only way you keep coming back to a recipe, or to an ingredient, again and again is if your mouth waters when you think of it.
So here’s a dish to drive a mack truck through every idea you have about tofu. How about we bread it, fry it and suspend it in a lovely, deep dashi-based sauce? Agedashi tofu is a glorious dish, golden and soft and swimming in deep, delicate flavors that dissolve in your mouth like cotton candy.
For Agedashi tofu you can’t go without grated daikon. It’s easiest to get nice fresh and sweet daikon in autumn and winter, so agedashi tofu is another menu you should try now!
I’m always amazed by my Western friends’ horrified reaction when I say I’m making tofu. It’s hard to think of any food where there’s a bigger gap between the way Japanese people perceive it and the way Western people do.
For people in the West, tofu’s just gnarly health food: something vaguely unappetizing vegetarians use instead of meat. But in Japan, tofu is high cuisine: an artisanal dish made fresh daily that can fetch premium prices at top restaurants.
In Kyoto, in particular, yudoufu is an obsession: a prized delicacy served in traditional restaurants housed inside Zen monasteries, including the famous 13th century Nanzen-ji Temple. The reason, I think, is that yudoufu is the essense of tofu: a simple, delicate dish that works wonderfully if it’s made with very high quality soft tofu.
My mom’s version of Kenchin-jiru is one of them, a warming dish for cold winter days you can make in about half an hour to 40 minutes. It brings together Tofu, pork, carrots and Japanese radish (daikon) into a lovely, savory-sweet main dish.
Looking around online, it seems there are many different versions of Kenchin-jiru out there – and the original version was a vegetarian soup! My mom’s version was neither vegetarian nor soup – but it is delicious!
The secret to great kenchin-jiru is simple: very fresh Japanese radish. Make sure your daikon is super-fresh, and this dish will turn out great.