I was lucky enough recently to be invited by a friend to visit a member of her community that maintains the practice of making tofu by hand. The tools are simple, the process is a bit time-consuming, and the results are delicious. We spent a morning helping to prepare the tofu, and ate much of the final product for lunch.
The first step in making homemade tofu is procuring the right beans, which in Japan are known as daizu. The daizu are soaked in water for 2 days (winter) or 12 days (summer). The soaked beans are then crushed into a slurry (go). A large basin, two stones (ishi-usu) and a wooden handle comprise the grinding system.
The ishi-usu were carved so that the beans would be carried into the heart of the grinding mechanism and squeezed out the sides as they were crushed. A small cloth-wrapped peg was used to hold the center of the stones together.
The next step was heating the go. We brought the crushed beans outside and poured them into a large nabe (iron pot) resting on a burn barrel. A bit of water was added and a bamboo fire was built below the nabe. Bamboo is preferred because it burns hot and fast.
As the heat increased and the surface of the go began to bubble we added rice hulls (komenuka) to keep the foam down.
We stoked the fire and occasionally stirred the go until a volcanic surface started to form. When the volcano erupted (not as dramatically as you might be imagining), we ladled the go into a cheesecloth resting on bamboo over a shallow pan. The hot liquid quickly seeped through, while the cloth filled with okara. Okara is the collected remnant hulls of the crushed beans. Okara is used in many dishes – from salads to cookies, and is (for some) an incredibly healthy and fiber-rich addition to the Japanese diet.
To ensure a complete removal of all excess liquid from the okara, the bamboo was wrapped around the cheesecloth and pressed repeatedly by rotating pairs.
Next, to the hot liquid we added nigari – the by-product of salt production. The nigari was slowly stirred into the liquid and caused the formation of tofu curds. The first of these curds was ladled off and eaten fresh (called aborodofu).
The remaining curds were poured into a tofu mold lined with a finely woven cloth. A weight was placed on top of the curds and allowed to push the liquid from the curds for about an hour.
Once removed from the mold, the tofu held it’s shape as a massive, white block of homemade goodness.
We ate the tofu with grated ginger and shouyu alongside a meal of nikujaga (meat and potatoes), yamaimo (a slimy root that is ground into a paste), gohan (cooked rice) and okara salad.