History and Types of Tofu in Japan

By Umami Recipe
History and Types of Tofu in Japan

Tofu is an ingredient that often appears in Japanese cooking. Despite its plain appearance, tofu is packed with nutrients and has contributed to the health of the Japanese people. Even without added preparation, tofu can be eaten as is, but it can also be baked, boiled or cooked in a variety of ways.

Tofu can also be used as a side dish, such as a salad, and if seasoned to accompany rice, it can quickly become the main dish. In this piece, we will explore the history and types of tofu in Japan that will guide you in your journey with tofu recipes.

History of Tofu

Tofu is now an everyday part of Japanese cuisine, with its origins from China long ago. Tofu is believed to have been brought to Japan by the Japanese envoys to China during the Nara period (710 - 784), but there are no clear records.

A mention of tofu was found in the diary of the priest of Nara's Kasuga Taisha Shrine in 1183. In it, we can surmise that tofu was a delicacy for the nobility and warrior families. During the Muromachi period (1393-1572), the production of tofu was brought from Nara Prefecture to Kyoto Prefecture, and during the Edo period (1603-1868) it finally spread nationwide as food for the common people. Today, tofu is loved all over Japan as a health food.

Types of Tofu - Cotton Tofu & Silken Tofu

"Tofu" is a word used to encompass many types and categories of tofu. In general, tofu can be grouped into "tofu," "tofu processed products," and "other related tofu products," but the most common category is the white, square tofu. In this section, we will mainly look at the differences between cotton (momen) tofu and silken (kinugoshi) tofu.

Cotton (momen) tofu is made using the most common and time-honored methods. The coagulated tofu is broken down and placed in a mold with holes and weighted with heavy stones to set. Because the coagulated tofu is broken down to remove excess water, the texture is slightly firmer than that of silken (kinugoshi) tofu.

Silken (kinugoshi) tofu, on the other hand, is made by adding coagulant to soy milk and pouring it directly into molds. Because it is not solidified with any special weight, it contains a large amount of water and is soft and smooth to the touch. The name "silk" comes from the fact that it is as fine as silk.

Types of Tofu - Grilled, Fried Tofu & Ganmodoki

In addition to basic tofu, there are also many processed tofu products that are deeply embedded in Japanese food culture. For example, "Yaki Tofu" is firm cotton tofu that has been drained well and grilled on the surface over charcoal or gas. In Japanese supermarkets, it is easy to find prepared grilled tofu. Grilled tofu easily soaks up flavor and is suitable for sukiyaki and simmered dishes.

There is also "fried tofu", which is made by deep-frying cotton tofu in hot oil. It has a delicious savory aroma and is a standard ingredient in miso soup and udon noodles.

Another popular fried tofu dish is "Ganmodoki," in which tofu is crumbled, drained, and deep fried with grated yam, burdock root, and carrot. It is delicious enough to be eaten as is, and is also very popular as an ingredient in oden and simmered dishes.

Local Tofu with Regional Differences

As mentioned, tofu is an essential ingredient in Japanese dishes, and its presence is national, with local tofu varieties originating in certain regions throughout Japan. An example of this is in Okinawa Prefecture, where an especially large and heavy tofu called "Shima Tofu", weighing about 500 grams, can be found. It is made using the "nama-shibori" method, in which soybeans are soaked in water and crushed before being heated to squeeze out the soy milk. Interestingly, seawater was used as a coagulant in the old days.

There is also a type of tofu called "Iburi Tofu" in Gifu Prefecture, which is made by marinating cotton tofu in miso overnight and then smoking it. With its characteristic cheese-like texture, it is a way to preserve tofu and is said to have been passed down from generation to generation for over 700 years.

Tofu wrapped in straw and boiled for 20 minutes is called "Toto Tofu", found in Fukushima Prefecture. "Nada Tofu" in Miyazaki Prefecture is made by adding finely chopped seasonal greens and flowers to cotton tofu during its production process. With all of these types of regional tofu, looking for and recognizing them in shops accross Japan can be its own form of fun.

What Tofu means to the Japanese

Tofu is appreciated for its high nutritional value and the methods and types of tofu have been passed down from generation to generation, making tofu an important contributor to the history of Japanese cuisine.

Don't let the simple apperance of tofu lead you to believe that its production is also simple--making tofu is a delicate process, requiring high levels of skill and care from its producers. You will find many tofu recipes in Umami Recipe, and we hope you will try many of them.

Umami Recipe Team

Bringing what's new on Japanese food and culture, from traditional to current trends to your home.