- Anna Walker
This experience has added another dimension to tofu. I recommend you challenging make tofu, guided by a pro tofu chef
Before moving to Japan I wasn’t much of a cook. As a life-long vegetarian living in North America, I was used to frozen veggie burgers and take-out avocado rolls. I knew living in Japan would provide some unique dietary challenges, but I had no idea it would light a fire in my kitchen — figuratively, of course! Though I’m still far from a seasoned chef, when I recently had the opportunity to learn how to make tofu from a third-generation tofu master in Tokyo, I couldn’t resist. This was something I never dreamed I’d get to experience! ( This article has posted stories of experiences from participants of Experience + program.)
I was able to meet the master tofu chef Mr. Arai as part of a WOW JAPAN! Experience+ event.
Taught by his grandfather, the humble Mr. Arai explained that it took him 20 years to fully master the art of tofu-making. His small, unassuming, traditional shop is located a short walk from Ohanajaya Station on the Keisei Line. It was here that I spent a few hours learning the secrets of tofu.
The entrance leads to a small store where a variety of Mr. Arai’s tofu products can be purchased, but the real action happens behind the scenes. As soon as we arrived, Mr. Arai greeted us warmly with a smile and ushered us inside. Without hesitation, he outfitted us with aprons and head scarves and showed us proper hand-washing procedures - health and safety first!
We met our interpreter at Ohanajaya Station.
The shop exterior
Just an aside — despite living in Japan, my Japanese language skills aren’t quite up to snuff. Thankfully, a skilled interpreter and guide provided by Experience+ was there to facilitate our tofu education. From meeting us at the station, guiding us to the shop, and providing complete language support, our interpreter made this experience completely accessible.
To make the tofu, we started with a mix of two different kinds of soybeans. The first was from Miyagi prefecture and contained a higher amount of protein, but with less flavor. To offset this, we used soybeans from Tochigi with a lower amount of protein but more flavor. Mixing the two creates just the right balance of protein and flavor to create a good product.
Blending the two types of soybeans creates a product with high protein and a good flavour profile.
We blended the beans with water to make a smooth pulp and then heated it slowly until it frothed and bubbled - don’t let the foam boil over! We scooped the foam off gently to reveal a dense layer of product underneath. This will soon become tofu! We then let the pot sit in a cool water bath before carrying on.
Don't let the foam boil over! It's ready to take off the heat now.
Removing the foam to reveal the high protein layer underneath.
After the cooling was complete, we strained the soy with a cotton cloth in order to separate the solids from the liquids. This liquid is the soy milk, and what we’ll use to make the final tofu product. The solid by-product, called okara, is starchy, crumbly, and as explained by our tofu master, it is high in fibre, a little protein, and several micronutrients.
Okara can be quite dry to eat plain so after we had squeezed all the soy milk out we were sure to drink some water to chase it down. Okara can be used in a variety of ways. Mr. Arai suggested pan frying it, adding it to stews, or making a salad with it, which is what he demonstrated for us.
Making the okara salad
To make salad from the okara, add some olive oil, salad dressing, and sliced cucumbers to the plain okara. Be sure to add enough moisture to compensate for the dryness! The olive oil didn’t quite do it, so we added a splash of our own home-made soy milk to the bowl. Top with black pepper to taste and enjoy! I had seen okara in grocery stores before but never really knew what to do with it. I’m really looking forward to trying out new recipes with okara too!
With the okara separated from the soy milk, we set the pan of milk on the stove and heated it again slowly, making sure to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Afterward, we poured the milk into small containers, added the magnesium chloride, carefully mixed the milk, and sealed the container for about 30 minutes.
Heating the soy milk a second time
Adding the magnesium chloride to make the final product!
Time for lunch!
We ate our okara salad, our home-made tofu, tofu “fries” served by Mr. Arai, and the leftover soy milk from our journey. The soy milk was still warm, rich, and nutty. It was definitely the best soy milk I’ve ever had! The tofu though! It was slightly warm, soft, smooth, and silky. I ate mine in 3 different ways: plain, with some salt, and finally with 黒みつ, (kuro-mitsu) brown sugar syrup (think molasses).
About to enjoy the okara salad and warm soy milk
Finally, the smooth and soft tofu is ready to enjoy.
While we were eating, Mr. Arai kindly introduced us to some of his other products, including fried tofu sticks (he recommends eating these with sweet chili sauce), green tofu, fried tofu balls with vegetables, and black tofu. In fact, he was the first person in Japan to make black tofu! This black tofu can’t normally be found in his shop though; he only makes it a few times a year. He also showed us a book that he’s featured in — a master tofu chef indeed!
Aside from being a skilled craftsman, Mr. Arai is kind, warm, and eager to share his knowledge about tofu with others. Throughout the entire process he was attentive, smiling, and genuine. Tofu has a long tradition in Japan and having the opportunity to connect to the history and culture through this experience has been truly wonderful.
I ended up buying some of the きぬ (kinu), or silken, tofu to bring back home, along with Mr. Arai’s own solution of magnesium chloride. I also got some of his green okara, made from green soybeans. I’ll experiment using it in salads or pan-frying with vegetables. I can’t wait to try my hand at tofu-making in my own kitchen and I’m thrilled knowing that the talent and history embedded in the ingredients adds a flavour that can’t be replicated.
Thanks to WOW JAPAN! Experience+, I got the opportunity to participate in a seamless, fascinating, culturally-rich event exploring tofu, taught by a master no less! This experience has certainly expanded my culinary knowledge and added another dimension to tofu that I never knew existed. Are you ready to challenge yourself with tofu?
See you again soon!
My name is Anna Walker and I am a part-time teacher, part-time student, and life-long learner living and working in Tokyo. I enjoy learning about Japanese food, ingredients, and cooking methods as well as taking in the sights and sounds of Japan - from a forest hike all the way to the hustle and bustle of Shinjuku. On weekends you can find me running in my neighbourhood park or checking out new vegetarian eats.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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