In the West, tofu is considered a boring dish desperately in need of other ingredients to make it interesting. Not so in Japan and especially in Kyoto. Tofu is a well-known component of Kyoto regional cooking, and locals consider tofu to be the star of the show.
When visiting Kyoto during November and December’s peak leaf-viewing season we always make sure to book a meal at one of the city’s wonderful selection of tofu-centric eateries. Our very favorite is Tousuiro, a Kyoto institution where the tofu is made in house from domestically grown soybeans. At Tousuiro, tofu turns into a dazzling spectacle. The meal is not only delicious: It is the perfect Kyoto experience.
There are several theories as to the origins of tofu, which is created from soymilk that has been coagulated using salts or acids and then pressed into cakes. Most assume that it originated in China almost 2,000 ago during the Han Dynasty and migrated to Japan in the late 8th century AD.
Perhaps one reason why tofu has stuck around so long is that it is low in calories and high in protein, which makes it an ideal food for vegetarians. Buddhists throughout Asia, most of whom practice vegetarianism, depend on tofu as a mainstay of their diet. In Japan a Buddhist meal, also called shojin ryori, is based around tofu dishes. It’s no wonder that the city of Kyoto, being one of the most important Buddhist centers in Japan with upwards of 2,000 temples, is traditionally tofu-centric in its cuisine.
The main Tousuiro Kiyamachi (there is a branch nearby) is housed in a typical Kyoto wooden machiya (townhome) at the end of a long alley that abuts the Kamogawa River. After guests have removed their shoes and stowed them in small lockers, kimono-clad women escort them to either a counter that spans the restaurant, the small tatami (mat) seating areas or, if one is truly lucky, a prized table outside on the kawayuka (terrace) overlooking the river. Sitting out in the night air during temperate months and viewing the beauty along the Kamogawa river is a beloved Kyoto tradition.
Since we go to Tousuiro primarily to dine (although it is tempting to want to drink into the night on the terrace) our favorite time to visit is at lunch when they offer a traditional, multi-course kaiseki tofu presentation for a very reasonable price (around US$30). The kaiseki is slightly more costly at night.
While the star of a Tousuiro kaiseki meal is the tofu, the accompaniments change depending on the season. The meal will possibly begin with a mound of gleaming chilled yuba (bean curd skin that forms when soy milk is boiled, much like the skin on cow’s milk) nestled atop a shiso leaf resting on shaved ice and accompanied by ginger and daikon radish. Yuba is a regional dish famous in Kyoto and eaten year round.
Other Tousuiro “all-star” dishes will follow. Dengaku is a must-try full of umami flavors and one of Tousuiro’s signature dishes. Two blocks of firm yet smooth tofu are skewered on bamboo sticks, then slathered on top with two kinds of miso and grilled over an open charcoal flame. One block has a light colored, less fermented and milder tasting miso, while the other has a typical Kyoto reddish miso that is fermented longer and has a deeper taste.
A main element of kaiseki meals is always a fried dish. At Tousuiro there are two kinds of tempura, one of seasonal vegetables and another of the most ethereal tofu wrapped in nori (seaweed). Both are offered with a dipping sauce and special salt.
At Tousuiro, tofu turns into a dazzling spectacle.
Tofu is eaten in three main varieties: silken, firm and extra firm. Western tastes tend toward firm tofu with not much bean taste, whereas Japanese people favor silken tofu with a noticeable bean taste. This is evident at Tousuiro: Its specialty is silky tofu served as simply as possible. In warmer months it is served cold as oboro dofu, a wedge of perfect tofu from which diners are expected to scoop off chunks to be dipped in a dashi– and soy-based sauce laced with katsuobushi (shaved bonito flakes), ground ginger, nori and diced scallion. Some aficionados avoid the dipping sauce altogether, only sprinkling salt on the tofu.
Possibly the most famous of Kyoto’s traditional dishes is yudofu, or a hot pot of the same silky tofu that is available year round. The tofu is served simply in a hot broth and dipped, as with the cold tofu, in a sauce made of katsuobushi, ginger, nori and scallion. The point of yudofu is to taste the perfection in the tofu. At Tousuiro the dish is served in a specially made wooden warmer. The tofu is heated in a lightly flavored broth and the dipping sauce is also kept hot in its own holder.
On some visits to Tousuiro, especially in the evening, we order a la carte from the menu, with a lovely selection of the very freshest sashimi, grilled fish and a large variety of tofu dishes containing animal proteins. There are varying reports that the restaurant is happy to make most tofu dishes without dashi broth, which contains fish. The restaurant claims that they are completely vegetarian upon request, yet we’ve heard of some vegetarians who have come away unhappy.
No matter what we order at Tousuiro, we never leave without a scoop of their ice cream – made, of course, out of tofu – for dessert.