The first time I tried a tofu burger was the last. We were sitting in best friend Melissa Keating’s kitchen. Father Ed, had started Ramparts, so a rather eclectic mix of characters strolled through their doors, ranging from black panthers to anti-war activists. It was the late 60’s. The Keating household became known as the place kids could go and crash. They had an open door policy, thanks to their rambling house and open-hearted mother, Helen. By the time of the tofu burger, the family had downsized to a smaller lot, but similarly rambling old house in Menlo Park. John Gerkensmeyer was one of the strays that hung around as part of their “extended family.” John, was poetically gentle, with shoulder-length wispy blond hair. And of course, he was a vegetarian. Hence the tofu burger.
One bite made me wonder, why bother? What was the point of eating a meat substitute? I just didn’t get it. It looked like a dry hamburger and tasted worse. Sawdust comes to mind. But hey, I suppose they’ve gotten better. Maybe.
But then, I like tofu as is. I live in Japan and tofu in Japan is a whole other thing, not to be confused with most tofu in the U.S..
Japanese tofu is like silky custard, with a back taste of fragrantly musky soy. To truly appreciate the nuance of tofu, one should taste it without salt or soy sauce. But if you just want to gobble it down, go for the works. I like tofu with some freshly grated ginger, chopped scallions, shaved katsuobushi and organic soy sauce.
When I first came to Japan 22 years ago, apartment deposits and non-refundable key money payments had depleted my reserves. After buying rice, my dinner budget stretched just enough to buy one piece of tofu everyday from the local shop, a few vegetables and one can of beer. I ate rice crackers with tea for “lunch” at the English school where I worked, one reason why I hate rice crackers (besides their prerequisite ingredient, MSG). Not unlike now, dinner was the highpoint of my day. The bus dropped me off near my apartment at around 9:30 pm, so my dinnertime was close to 10. Once again keeping restaurant hours, I’d watch cooking shows in Japanese while I ate my dinner. I didn’t know what they were saying, but I got ideas from their methods. And that was my entrée into Japanese cooking.
The tofu shop down the street, quickly became my special stop. The family was unusually friendly and interested in the foreign girl. We bumbled along in a mixture of Japanese and English, but in the end they developed into my closest friends in Japan and were my “family” at my Japanese wedding. Fate is a funny thing. This family’s last name was identical to Tadaaki’s: 八須．Same kanji characters and same reading: Hachisu. The last name is unusual and the characters even more so, just a little piece of fate putting me together with two different 八須 families.
A couple months after Tadaaki and I became engaged, my older sister Pam arrived for a visit, a response to my pleas to come vet the situation. Tadaaki had I were building a house together and a feeling of “there is no going back” had settled upon me, causing me to feel a certain measure of panic. My mother had died a few months before coming to Japan, and I had uprooted myself to a totally foreign culture. This is not a good time to make life-changing decisions like marriage.
While Pam was visiting, we had any number of dinners out with friends. Pam (a slightly squeamish eater), still remembers the sea snails with visceral disgust. But not so the tofu. Perched on floor cushions in the cluttered tatami room adjoining the Hachisu family's tofu-making operation, we were served freshly made tofu and a few deep-fried pressed tofu pieces (atsuage). Topped with chopped green onion, grated ginger and bonito flakes, even Pam could not resist being seduced by the tofu.
After our marriage, I moved to my husband’s home town, Kamikawa (god river), and in Kamiizumi, the mountain town nearby, we found local organic tofu that defied description. The Hachisu tofu, though made from imported non-organic soy beans, had nonetheless been made from the heart. Loyalty is a strong bond, but distance made the decision uncomplicated. Tofu is perishable and best eaten the same day made. So the Touan tofu produced at Yamaki became our local favorite. And now, I bring that tofu with me as omiyage for the cooks and staff at Chez Panisse. In thanks for all the local meals they make for us when we’re away from the farm.
Besides that bite of (frozen) tofu burger in the early ‘70’s, I didn’t try American tofu again until a visit to legendary vegetarian restaurant, Greens, in the early ‘90’s. By then, I had been in Japan for a few years. In the ‘80’s, my friends and I often ate at Greens (if we could get a table), but I had never ordered the grilled tofu sandwich. After eating tofu in Japan, I was curious to try American tofu. The tofu has been pressed to exude water and firm up the “flesh.” In those days, Greens marinated the pressed tofu in a combination of aromatics, tamari soy sauce, sherry vinegar and red wine for a couple days, then grilled it on the fire. The sandwich was tasty because of the homemade mayonnaise slathered Tassajara wheat bread layered with juicy onions and Green Gulch lettuce. But the tofu wasn’t much to write home about, and I could have been just as happy without it. The texture was somehow strange. Chalky or maybe mealy.
I suspect here lies the problem when it comes to American tofu. Often described as bland, American tofu is primarily a meat substitute for vegetarian cooking. It is not typically celebrated on its own. Glorious, in its cool elegance. Slippery cool as it slides down your throat, there is no comparing Japanese tofu. And well worth the plane ticket to Japan.
Usuage: Tofu blocks are sliced horizontally into thin slabs (¼th maybe), weighted to press out liquid, then deep fried to puff up. Usuage (thin fried) is also known as aburaage (oil fried). Heat a small amount of mild oil (canola, rapeseed, peanut) in a hot frying pan and re-crisp usuage. Cut into halves, then again diagonally into triangles. Arrange on a plate, top with little dabs of freshly grated ginger, chopped scallions, shaved katsuobushi and a sprinkling of organic soy sauce. Feel free to eliminate any ingredient, though I wouldn’t skip the soy sauce. Positively addicting with drinks before dinner.
Usuage, once crisped can be julienned and sprinkled on steamed & squeezed greens seasoned with soy sauce or dashi. It also can be julienned as is (no re-crisp necessary) and added to sautéed greens, miso soup or kenchinjiru as a protein component (yes, a meat substitute, I take back the snarky comments I wrote earlier). Daishi-simmered usuage is also stuffed with sushi rice for inarizushi.
Atsuage & Gamodoki Tofu blocks are weighted to express water, then deep fried to produce atsuage. Gamodoki is formed into patties from mashed and squeezed tofu, mixed with hand grated yamaimo (mountain yam) as a binder and seasoned with diced carrot & mushroom, julienned konbu (kelp), then deep fried. Atsuage & gamodoki are nice crisped up over a slow wood burning fire or in a covered frying pan in a bit of mild oil, on medium low flame. They are both tasty before dinner snacks, served with soy sauce and any of the usual tofu accoutrements. Traditionally they were used to add a depth of flavor to dashi & soy sauce flavored simmered root vegetables (niimono) or hot pots. And yes, this was a meat substitute, as farmers did not really eat much meat or fish after the war.
Kanchan’s Gamodoki & Deep Fried Sweet Potatoes in Dashi Photo by Sam Seager
Tofu Composée Not really a Japanese meal, but one of my creations and a popular school lunch. Natto provides another protein source (if you like it). Be sure to really whip it up to promote that characteristic creamy slime. The mountain mitsuba salad is dressed with organic miso: organic rice vinegar: and organic rapeseed oil (1:1:2). During the summer, I like to use tomatoes wedges or cherry tomatoes as the fresh vegetable and in that case, serve it with a little homemade mayonnaise made from organic rapeseed oil. Not-so-hard-boiled eggs are also a nice addition. Boil eggs for 7-8 minutes (depending on size) and cool with cold running water. Slice in half and scoop out if you have fresh eggs (hard to peel). Equally nice with homemade mayonnaise.