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Sunday, June 22, 2003

Getting a taste for tofu at its silken best

At Tokyo's venerable Sasa-no-yuki, things are what they used to be

Staff writer

If natto is a challenge to the average taste bud, tofu is a breeze -- so bland, some might say, that if humans lived on tofu alone they would long ago have dispensed with taste buds altogether.

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Sasa-no-yuki tofu in Negishi, Tokyo

Inclined, myself, to the view that neat tofu has almost no taste and little to commend it but its soft and watery texture, the thought of eating it without the help of soy sauce and spicy yakumi toppings such as shoga and negi is about as appealing as downing a bottle of alcohol-free wine. Sure, we all know how healthy it is, but that aside, how could anyone actually like the "taste" of unadorned tofu?

Searching for answers to this riddle, I found myself in Negishi last weekend, sitting seiza-style in a tatami room at the 310-year-old Sasa-no-yuki tofu restaurant in Tokyo's Taito Ward.

Sasa-no-yuki -- which has become a dictionary word describing one particular tofu dish -- has been known as a prime source of silken tofu since it opened all those hundreds of years ago close to its present home near Ueno.

A portion of traditionally made silken tofu appeared in a small wooden pail before me. Just tofu, uncooked.

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Sitting across the table was Sasa-no-yuki president and tofu meister Taichiro Okumura, who said: "Try to eat it, just once, without putting anything on it."

Nothing on it? Nothing at all? Never had I tried that. At the very least, I had always needed soy sauce and shoga to enjoy uncooked tofu.

So it was with Okumura peering intently at me that I scooped up the tofu with a specially designed spoon and slid it into my mouth.

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In fact, I caught a certain sweetness. I sensed, too, a flavor. Surprisingly, it wasn't boring at all to eat the "plain" tofu -- and I enjoyed the "taste."

Sensing my reaction, Okumura smiled and explained that what I was experiencing was the pure taste of soy beans and the flavor of their protein.

His faith in his product is perhaps only natural, considering that Okumura is the 10th generation of a tofu-making family that originated in Kyoto and moved to Edo (present-day Tokyo) more than 300 years ago accompanying a son of Emperor Gosai, who liked silken tofu. In fact, it was the prince who indirectly named the restaurant Sasa-no-yuki, after he declared that its tofu reminded him of the beauty of snow (yuki) lying on the leaves of low-growing bamboo (sasa).

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"If you really want to know the taste of tofu, put a piece on freshly cooked rice and eat it. Then you can tell," says Okumura, who usually enjoys tofu with no toppings while drinking wine or beer. "The taste of soy protein is strong enough to blend beautifully with a simple bowl of rice."

Okumura also observed, it has become a rather luxurious experience these days -- because there is so little tofu fit to be eaten this way.

Though so simple in principle -- relying merely on high-quality soy beans, good water in which to soak and boil them, and nigari (bittern) to cause coagulation -- tofu has now mostly fallen foul of profit-oriented mass production to the point that many people may never have tasted the authentic stuff, Okumura says. "Nowadays, we are one of only a few shops still making tofu in the traditional way."

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Sasa-no-yuki manufactures its tofu in the basement of the restaurant using water from its own source deep underground. The work starts at 3 a.m. every morning and, as Okumura explains, it can be a fickle process because the coagulation using only nigari is easily affected by the technique of workers and the quality of the soy beans. Because of this, he says, his shop's tofu looks and tastes slightly different every day.

"Once in a while, our tofu turns out to be not as good as I would like, and that is very worrying and disappointing," Okumura concedes, adding that "it is very, very delicate work."

Indeed, the silken tofu before me, with its slightly pock-marked surface, does not look as completely smooth as the factory-produced stuff I usually eat -- but it tastes much more rich and creamy and is not too fragile or watery.

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So, presumably, this was what tofu was like when it became so popular all over Japan during the Edo Period, when recipe books described more than 100 ways of cooking and serving it. At Sasa-no-yuki, though, Okumura stubbornly sticks to a simple, traditional menu beloved of local writers and artists who have often sung its praises.

Among these dishes is ankake-dofu, a fixture on the shop's menu since it opened 310 years ago, when it was all it served. This is, quite simply, a small piece of tofu dipped in a sauce made of kuzu, soy sauce and dashi soup. The shop's ankake-dofu has been so esteemed for such a long time that "sasanoyuki" has become the dictionary word to describe it. Now, Sasa-no-yuki offers nine other tofu dishes as well, including goma-dofu (sesame tofu) and hiryuzu (deep-fried tofu burgers), also known as ganmodoki.

Not that those 10 dishes are all that the shop could offer -- and Okumura even makes a tofu wine -- but as he says with a smile, "although we could make many more inventive dishes, our long-term customers feel comfortable just with the usual, traditional menu."

Though he admits business is not brisk these days, Okumura says he is happy to continue even if it's only to serve customers who just stop by for a portion of uncooked tofu and a cup of sake.

Now that's the kind of accompaniment to my tofu that will surely see me back at Sasa-no-yuki again before long . . .

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