Oh tofu, where to start my ode to you? You are soft when I want you to be, and firm when I need you to be. You are amenable to slow cooking, frying, even grilling. All of my friends, both meat-eaters and herbivores alike, covet you. Before I met you, I never knew what a bean could be.
It’s hard to believe that tofu is simply pressed, coagulated soy bean milk. It is of course due to this simplicity that it takes so well to various preparations. Being high in protein, it is naturally a popular source of protein for vegetarians. Japanese style, one of the most simple preparations, called hiyayakko, requires not much more than soy sauce, a bit of ginger, katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), and a bit of green onion. The simplicity is, by design, beguiling.
Once you move on to cooking with tofu, the options increase exponentially. Agedashi style tofu takes medium sized cubes of tofu, fries ’em up, and dresses them to kill. Fried tofu in general (atsuage) also has many an application.
For those looking to avoid the oil of fried foods, tofu is happy to oblige. Tofu can be simmered in a nabe (hot pot), where it is especially deft at absorbing the surrounding flavors. It also makes appearances on the sukiyaki stage, where (vegetarians should plug their ears) it sucks up the sweet, soy sauce infused meatiness with aplomb. And who needs hamburgers when, mixed with some spices and bread crumbs, tofu makes for a great hamburger-esque patty?
Tofu, like many things Japanese, is actually Chinese in origin, and it is still enjoyed in the context of Chinese dishes throughout Japan even today. One favorite is Mapo Tofu, which has had it’s flavors adjusted to better match the Japanese palate. Tofu also can be frequently seen in Thai food, for example in pad thai. Every culture’s treatment of tofu is different, and a testament to evolution. Give it a try in Japan, and wherever else you may see it!