A long string of wind chimes hanging from the wooden roof of Ken Yamashita’s old house in rural Tokorozawa competes with the chirping of cicadas to pierce the quiet of a lazy afternoon. Time might easily be mistaken for standing still here, but in just a few hours city dwellers will start packing themselves into crowded trains as they rush home for dinner with their families.
As lights in houses and apartments start to glow, the comforting smells of home cooking will waft from their windows. Plates and chopsticks will be set out, and rice cookers will beep, but somehow dinnertime for many Japanese won’t seem quite complete until a certain white staple is on the table: tofu.
That’s where 53-year-old Yamashita Ð fourth proprietor of his family’s small enterprise Kamuro Tofu Ð comes in.
“There are about 30 kinds of soybeans cultivated here,” he says as he leads the way out into the soybean field behind the house, the beanstalks gleaming bright green in the sunlight. “I adore them all.”
Yamashita doesn’t merely work his land Ð in a way, it’s as if he’s part of it. Kamuro soybeans are subjected to no fertilizers or pesticides, as Yamashita says he is trying to return the field to its original state.
“In nature,” he says, “things grow without any artificial fertilizers.”
That’s the way it has been done here for more than a century, dating back to when Kamuro first started at the end of the Edo era. Tofu itself, of course, goes back much further. Although there is no positively confirmed date for its invention, it originates in China and is documented there around 200 BC. The first time the actual word “tofu” showed up was about 1,000 years ago.
It reached the shores of Japan during the Nara period (710 to 794). At that time, Japanese monks and students made expeditions to China, and when they returned home they brought with them both Buddhist teachings and, among other things, tofu.
A popular source of protein for monks who were not allowed to eat meat, aristocrats and warriors quickly learned of tofu’s merits as well. Because it was considered an exclusive delicacy of sorts, it wasn’t until the Edo era (about 1600 to 1867) that the common folk could enjoy it too.
Even then, the authorities did not allow them to produce tofu in their own villages, so it could only be enjoyed on special occasions until mid-Edo, when it finally became a common sight on tables.
These days, Yamashita does his best to stay true to the old-fashioned Japanese methods. His day starts early at 4am, when he runs the water for keeping the tofu at the end of the process. He then boils ground soybeans that have been soaking overnight before squeezing out the juice to make soymilk. After that comes the key coagulation ingredient known in Japan as nigari.
In China, rich natural resources allowed the use of plaster to coagulate soymilk. Nigari, on the other hand, is a white powder produced from seawater by removing the salt and evaporating the remaining liquid.
“Traditionally we use nigari,” Yamashita explains. “But during the war, the government prohibited its use because they needed it for other purposes. It was only around the 1980s that we started using it again, as I guess the standard of living went up and people expected everything to be of better quality. found acceptance among health-conscious Americans. The mainstream crowd, on the other hand, appears to be another matter. Tofu is still mostly relegated to specialty food stores or supermarkets in urban areas where it sells like hot cakes to yoga enthusiasts and vegetarians.
Healthy or not, many just find its taste (or lack thereof) is nothing to get excited about. But Yamashita manages to discover joy in even the slightest subtleties of flavor and texture, which differ depending on the soybeans and any number of other intangibles.
“Even though I use exactly the same kind of soybeans, it’s slightly different everyday,” he says while pulling out a few weeds between the stalks. “So it’s fascinating how different it can taste when I use different kinds of beans.
“My project is to make tofu with 500 different kind of soybeans Ð so far I’ve done more than 100 (gathered from various places), recording everything in notebooks. It’s fun and working in the field is a great release for the heart.”
The deceptive simplicity of tofu masks its depth Ð its historical roots, its pure nutrients and the soul of local producers such as Yamashita for whom its production is a true labor of love. So the next time you feel inclined to turn your nose up, it might help to remember their passion and toil, and try the above quick-and-easy suggestions to make the white stuff a little tastier.
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Story by Jim hand-Cukierman
From J SELECT Magazine, November 2007