Browsing the refrigerated tofu section of the supermarket, my eyes were drawn to the dark brown package on the shelf right in the middle of rows of white and cream colored packages. “Mascarpone-like Natural Tofu: Chocolate Flavour” it says. I love chocolate (Who doesn’t?) and was intrigued by what looks like a really decadent but also healthy treat. I just had to try it. I tempered my expectations — after all, it is still tofu, and not authentic mascarpone cheese. Still, it did not disappoint. The texture was similar to the delicate Italian cheese and the chocolate flavour was light but satisfying. You could hardly detect the tofu flavour. The variety of tofu and tofu products available and tofu’s versatility continue to amaze me.
Tofu originated from China possibly from a kitchen mistake. Soybeans were probably dried, soaked, mashed then boiled into a thick soup. Fibrous okra might have been removed from the mixture. When salt was added to season the soup, curds probably formed and if the whey was drained off, the curds would have compressed under their own weight and eventually molded themselves into something that we would call tofu today.
Tofu then spread to Japan in the 1500s by Buddhist monks who sustained themselves with this high-protein food. These vegetarian monks set up tofu shops inside the temples and opened vegetarian restaurants specializing in tofu. In 1782, the book Tofu Hyakuchin (A Hundred Tofu Delicacies) was published and became so popular that several sequels and supplements to this book followed. Tofu quickly gained status as one of the most familiar ingredients and became virtually the national food of Japan. As with other crafts in Japan, tofu shokunin or masters emerged and they elevated tofu making into an art.Tofu boasts of numerous health benefits. It has no cholesterol, is high in calcium and protein (and thus a good replacement for dairy and meat products), and low in sodium and fat. It is also a good source of other vitamins and minerals. It is not surprising that tofu is considered a “nutritional powerhouse”.
Tofu is not only highly nutritious but also extremely versatile and adaptable. It can be deep fried, stir fried, grilled, baked, boiled, steamed. You can use tofu in your salads, soups, dips, shakes, casseroles, quiches, breads, desserts. While tofu by itself has a very delicate flavor, it easily takes on marinades and sauces and can be quite tasty.
Because tofu is 80% water, premium tofu can only be made with pure water and new tofu shops always consider the quality of the water in the locale. Many people who have previously lived in Tokyo swear by the superiority of the water out here in Hidaka, Saitama. This being the case, there are two tofu destinations that you must visit if you happen to come this way.
The first is Koma Tofu. This small shop can be easily found along the walking path towards Kinchakuda, a purse-shaped fields famous for its spread of higanbana (spider lily) flowers in September.
Koma Tofu prides itself for using soy beans from Chichibu particularly the uncommon and valuable Chichibu black bean that taste naturally sweeter than regular soy beans and which they use to make one of their bestsellers: the three color yuba or tofu skin, which is essentially the layer of film that forms when boiling soy milk in an open pan. Their other bestseller is miso pickled tofu and the resulting product tastes very much like cheese and goes well with wine. Both of these make good omiage (presents from a trip) from Hidaka.
The other tofu shop is Tofubou, a bigger one that also has a restaurant. It is difficult to miss it from the highway as there are eye catching banners outside advertising their tofu soft cream, tofu donuts and tofu buffet.
The shop boasts of a much wider array of tofu products, from ready-to-eat snacks great for a quick lunch or as a side dish to supplement dinner such as inarizushi (a pouch of fried tofu filled with sushi rice), tofu karaage (a deep fried tofu product that tastes almost like chicken), okara (soy pulp mixed with assorted vegetables), agedashi tofu (fried tofu served with garnish), kinchakuni (fried tofu pouch tied on one end usually found in soups) and one of their bestsellers, tofu hamburgers.
In Tofubou’s refrigerated section, they sell tofu products for cooking and baking such as soy milk, soy cream, fresh tubs of tofu, fried tofu of various cuts and sizes, trays of yuba, all made fresh everyday at the shop. The other tofu variants they offer include tomato tofu, yuzu (Japanese citrus) tofu, edamame (green bean) tofu and black sesame tofu.
Tofubou’s tofu desserts are, in my opinion, their best offerings. The tofu donuts that come in packs of five are chewy, springy, not oily and with just the right amount of sweetness. On a hot day, you will find the tofu soft cream satisfyingly light and refreshing, with a subtle tofu taste. Tofu pudding comes in a variety of flavors such as strawberry, blueberry, chocolate, and mango.The tofu bread is hefty yet moist. Their newest product is frozen tofu yoghurt in six different flavors. You can definitely indulge your sweet tooth at Tofubou without feeling all too guilty.
Tofubou always offers free tasting of their tofu donuts and the tofu karaage, but the best way to sample most of their offerings is to try their lunch buffet. Available everyday from 11:00 hours to 14:30 hours, the buffet is incredibly affordable at 980 yen for adults, 700 yen for elementary students, 400 yen for children and 200 yen for toddlers 2-3 years. Guests who opt to dine in can enjoy the spread of tofu goodness at their leisure at the restaurant’s bright and open deck.
Koma Tofu (高麗豆腐) is located at 122-1 Dai, Hidaka-shi, Saitama-ken (Tel. No. 042-984-3450). It is about a 5 minute walk from Koma Station along the Seibu Chichi Line. The shop is closed on Tuesdays. Tofubou (豆腐厨房) is located at 9-3 Niregi, Hidaka-shi, Saitama-ken (Phone No. 042-986-1877). It is about a 15 minute walk from Komagawa Station on the JR Hachiko Line.