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On the forested Mt. Oyama, only one and a half hours away from Tokyo, the sleepy atmosphere is broken by a cheering crowd. It’s mid-March and women are sitting in a row on a stage, shoveling cups of tofu into their mouths as fast as they can. It is messy, distinctly inelegant and a whole lot of mad fun.

These women are challengers in the Wanko Tofu speed eating competition, which also sees men and children compete in respective rounds. All this, along with a gigantic four-meter pot of boiling tofu and several other street food snacks, is part of the annual Oyama Tofu Festival, which celebrates the area’s long history of producing especially delicious tofu and marks its 30th anniversary this year.

Tofu, or bean curd, is traditionally made with only three ingredients: soybeans, water and a coagulant – usually a salt solution called nigari. Soybeans are soaked in water and then ground down into a soup-like mixture known as go. This is then heated until the mixture separates into okara (soy pulp) and soy milk. Nigari is added to coagulate the soy milk and the mixture is formed into blocks. There are two main types: momen, which means “cotton,” has a pleasing resistance when held between chopsticks, and a firm, slightly rough texture on the tongue; kinugoshi, literally “silken,” is aptly named for its far more delicate texture and slides down the throat as smoothly as you’d expect.

With only three ingredients, tofu is deceptively simple but those who make it have their own kodawari – a concept which signifies an almost obsessive level of perfectionism and dedication to a task or art. Soft water is said to be best for tofu, and the quality of soybeans must also be considered – those with a high sugar and fat content are highly prized but, equally, are the most expensive.

When it comes to heating the go, the soybean soup, “[t]he temperature is important,” says Takuya Aihara, who has been producing tofu in Oyama for over 13 years which he sells from his small store, Yuusuikoubou. “If you get it wrong, the tofu will become funya funya (soft and sloshy).”

That is as much as he will say about that aspect of production, prizing his secret after years of experimentation. Aihara’s family has been offering tofu cuisine in the area for more than 400 years at Tougakubo, a guesthouse that traditionally housed pilgrims, but it was only in the early 2000s that he began to think about making it from scratch. Traditional foodstuff though it may be, in modern times he turned to YouTube and the Internet to master the basics, although he subscribes fully to kaizen – the concept of continuous improvement. “Currently, I am producing the best I have ever produced but, I always think, maybe I can make it even better tomorrow.”

Tofu is ubiquitous in Japanese cuisine. Added into stir-fries, floating in miso soup, or served chilled with just a dash of soy sauce, it makes an appearance on a daily basis in many different forms. Deep-fried varieties are common: thin sheets known as aburaage soaked in dashi (stock), sugar and soy sauce make sweetened pouches that can be stuffed with fillings (like inarizushi) or used as toppings for udon noodles in broth; thicker atsuaage can be served alone with soy sauce and ginger, or used in soups or stews, soaking up the flavor of the broth. There is even a fermented tofu, tofuyo, a specialty of Okinawa that is served as an otsumami, a salty, strongly flavored snack with alcohol.

Despite its nationwide production and use, tofu was not traditionally an everyday cuisine, or in fact, even Japanese. Tofu has its roots in China, where it has been produced for more than 2,000 years. It is unclear as to when and how it arrived on the shores of Japan. One popular theory is that it was brought back by kentoshi, diplomatic envoys, usually monks or scholars, sent to China during the Nara (710-784) and Heian (794-1185) periods to acquire knowledge and cultural techniques. However, tofu hardly appears in the literature of the time, only increasing sharply in records from the 14th century onward.

Added into stir-fries, floating in miso soup, or served chilled with just a dash of soy sauce, [tofu] makes an appearance on a daily basis in many different forms.

Despite this growing prominence, tofu was not enjoyed by the masses. In the Edo period (1603-1868), Japan operated a strict feudal class system called shinokosho, in which society was divided into four categories: samurai warriors, craftsmen and artisans, merchants and farming peasants. Peasants were prohibited from eating certain foodstuffs, including tofu. The exception was on hare-no-hi, auspicious days, when festivals or other ceremonial occasions were held.

Some time during the mid-Edo period, regulations seemed to have been relaxed. In 1782, the cookbook Hyakuchin (100 Tofu Delicacies) was published; two sequels eventually followed. In total, these detailed 240 recipes – an indication of just how widespread tofu had become. Given that meat consumption was largely prohibited, tofu became an important source of protein, alongside its cousin, miso, a paste made from fermented soybeans.

Mt. Oyama, an area that produces no soybeans itself, might seem like an unusual location to have developed such a rich history of tofu cuisine. The answer is likely inextricably linked with its significance as a popular pilgrimage site during the Edo period. While travel was strictly controlled at the time, Mt. Oyama lay on the Tokyo side of the Hakone-Tokaido Checkpoint and was considered a “short trip” for which a tegata (travel permit) was not required. Farmers would visit the site, also known as Amefuri-yama (Rainfall Mountain), to pray for abundant rain. Merchants and shopkeepers would also send delegations to pray on behalf of the group. Many of these pilgrims would pay for their lodgings with soybeans or give them in thanks to the priests for offering prayers on their behalf.

Yet natural factors almost certainly contributed as well. Mt. Oyama’s water is considered to be excellent for tofu production. Tofu can also be kept cold and stored for a long time in water, and thus was a convenient way to feed large groups. This would have been extremely necessary: Around 200,000 pilgrims would flock to the area every summer, incredible numbers given the population of Edo (Tokyo) was only one million at the time.

Nowadays, Mt. Oyama’s traditional temple lodgings, shukubo, still receive pilgrims alongside tourists who visit for the mountain views as well as the cuisine. For Aihara, his days begin a little later than traditional tofu makers up at dawn. After he shuts up shop, he carries on working, delivering his tofu to several restaurants and izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) throughout the area. Just up the street, Oyama Tonkatsu Nakamuraya, a deep-fried breaded pork restaurant, has begun creating croquettes, mixing pork and tofu for a soft, light filling, a good snack before or after a hike. Another of Aihara’s customers uses it to make chiffon cake and even fluffy loaves of bread.

From a luxury item to a daily staple, tofu takes many different forms today. And as Japanese cuisine continues to evolve over time, tofu will undoubtedly evolve with it.

Editor’s note: Our recurring feature, Building Blocks, focuses on foods and ingredients that are fundamental to the cuisines we write about.

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