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Feature Fri Feb 06 2009

Weird Japanese Tofu Invades Chicago

A strange breed of tofu has been all the rage in Japan for the past few years.

It seems as though every single Japanese food blogger has written about this tofu. When most other tofu makers are content with two simple kinds of tofu--momen (literally "cotton," the firmer, more textured variety) and kinu ("silken," the smooth and lighter variety)--Otokomae Tofu has more than ten varieties. Moreover, all of them have the weirdest names like "Before Dawn: Wake up in the morning, plant kisses on the cheek of his daughter and start making tofu, that's daddy's blues" (yes, the whole thing is the name of this momen tofu) and "Wind-Driven Vagabond Johnny the Tofu-Maker."

"Huh?" was my initial response. I just didn't see how there could be a dozen different kinds of tofu with justifiable differences other than just different names and packages. This must be a lucky success of quirky marketing tactics, I thought. When I saw a refrigerated case full of those Otokomae tofus at Mitsuwa, though, I was willing to give it a try--and I was pleasantly shocked. It is true that it was a success of quirky marketing tactics, but the marketing success had a solid base in quality.

We picked up an "All-Around Tofu for Mommy's Home Cooking." The label (from which a retro-ish pencil sketch of a quintessential Japanese mom smiled at us) declared that it was a firmer kinu with a more concentrated flavor, especially suitable in winter hot pots. I wanted to taste the tofu itself, so I didn't use it in a hot pot. Instead, I served it hiyayakko-style (chilled tofu with aromatics). The difference from any other tofu I'd ever had--from even the ones I had in Japan--was staggering. As the label proclaimed, the texture was silky but pleasantly firm, and the concentrated flavor of soy beans was so sweet and earthy that it almost didn't need any condiments. Pungent tang of the soy sauce certainly felt like an interruption in the otherwise very well-rounded flavors of the tofu.

So, I served the remaining half of the "Mommy" tofu with minced green onion, a slightest pinch of sea salt and a tiny drizzle of sesame oil. This was right on. The salt complimented the natural sweetness of the tofu without obstructing it, and the sesame oil added some extra kick of toasted flavor. I've had hundreds of tofu over the years (and raved about one from H Mart), but this was by far the best ever in my life.

A week later, we went back to Mitsuwa to pick up some more Otokomae Tofu. This time, we went for the priciest, the wind-driven Johnny one, priced at a hefty $8 for two pieces. The package is nothing short of strange: it's shaped like an aerodynamic bullet train (supposedly it's shaped after a surf board that the vagabond tofu maker Johnny, whoever that is, loves more than his life). In a world of tofu where cuboids are the norm, this package stands out.

Once home, I opened the container and placed the tofu directly on my palm to cut it, for doing it on one's palm is the proper way of cutting a tofu without damaging it. I was taken aback by how different the Johnny felt on my palm: it was so silky, smooth and creamy that it clung to my palm like a squid's sucker. Since this tofu was too delicate for cooking, we decided to have it as a dessert. I made a syrup with water and Okinawan black sugar (you can substitute Mexican piloncillo), poured it over the tofu and accompanied it with generous spoonfuls of toasted soy nuts powder ("kinako" in Japanese). Even after the first "Mommy" tofu, the Johnny was a surprise. I have no idea how they make it so creamy; the texture was almost fatty, like the cream-based Italian dessert panna cotta. Both the "Mommy" and "Johnny" were kinu tofu, but they were distinct from each other. While the "Mommy" had a firmer texture and a more concentrated soy flavor, the "Johnny" had an exceedingly creamy, silky texture and a lighter flavor. How could they be so different?

Curious, I sleuthed around a bit to find out what's so different about this tofu. Why do they have so much flavor? How can Johnny be so creamy? Otokomae Tofu's weird-ass website (w/ sound) did not help (although it's definitely worth a look for its weirdness). It has a ton of content, but oddly enough, none of it is about tofu. "Profiles" pulls up a list of anachronistic cartoon characters with odd personal histories. "Whimsical" would be a kind way of describing them. (The first one I clicked to view, a muscular man with Afro hair, gaudy sunglasses and tight-fitting black pants, says that he is Tamotsu, responsible for sales, a pure-blood African American man from Harlem with a stereotypically broken family.) Likewise, "Story," which seems to go on and on (in both Japanese and English) for pages, doesn't seem to have much to do with tofu. It just doesn't make any sense--nor is it expected to. Even the "Product" page doesn't have too much useful information, other than photos of their tofu and their net weight.

From other sources, I gather that the owner of the Otokomae Tofu store realized that there's no future in cheap tofu. He decided that the only way to survive as an independent tofu maker in a world where supermarkets pressure underperforming small manufacturers to endlessly lower prices at the expense of quality is to become a boutique tofu maker. With this in mind, he sources his ingredients within Japan, instead of using the ever-popular imported soy beans from China and the US. Although there isn't too much information available online about their manufacturing process, it seems that the Otokomae Tofu succeeded in creating a brand of tofu that's high-end, high-quality and high-quirkyness all at the same time, in a way reviving the (almost) lost culture of Japanese artisans.

-- Yu Kizawa

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Shira / February 6, 2009 12:46 PM

Very interesting! Beyond the tofu, I 'm curious about the different ways to cook it you described in the article. I'm admittedly quite ignorant! Any chance these'll show up as recipes on Gapers Block?

pants / February 6, 2009 4:12 PM

can you get this junk anywhere other than mitsua? h-mart or somewheres in the city? sounds interesting!

Yu / February 9, 2009 11:11 AM

Thanks for an idea for a post! I'll put together my favorite tofu recipes and post it in the near future.

Hmm, not that I know of. I haven't seen it in H Mart, and I'm not as familiar with stores carrying Japanese foodstuff in the city proper as I probably should be. Kind of weird sine I live in the city, but c'est la vie. I'll have to explore places in the city and report back...

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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