Kyoto has the best tofu in Japan. No joke. There are still plenty of mom and pop mise that make it each day and even more resutoran that feature tofu. I’m guessing it would take over a year to try them all out. Maybe five years. I’m surprised that nobody has written an in-depth book on Kyoto tofu. It could probably be an hyakkajiten.
For summer, the obvious choice is a dish called hiyayakko. It is simply cold tofu (a soft kind) garnished with green onion, katsuoboshi, perhaps a bit of shōga and eaten with soy sauce. There are a lot of variations with the point being that cold tofu is simply so refreshing on a hot day. Needless to say, the quality of the tofu counts big time here!
One summer day when I was riding my jitensha down some side streets in Kyoto, I noticed something curious at a small tofu shop. It was obviously tofu, but in a shape I’d never seen before. (Wikipedia calls it “dome-shaped.”) The top of it was dusted with some green flakes of aonori. I wondered what it was and asked the shopkeeper who told me it was called karashidōfu or mustard tofu. He also told me how to eat it.
You take your ohashi and gently cut it in half. That exposes the dollop of mustard inside of the tofu. Next you add soy sauce and swirl the mustard into it. And eat! So refreshing!
I wondered about the yurai, but I didn’t find much information from Ms. Google. It may have originated in Gifu Prefecture about seventy years ago. So it isn’t all that old. But if you should ever be in Kyoto during the summer it is worth looking out for.
And of course, here is where I get to gripe about modern times. I bet you can find it in a sūpā and I bet you can find it in many other cites in Japan. I hope you don’t find it in the winter. But we humans are now so intent upon getting what we want when we want it and where we want it. Kind of takes the “special” out of it.
I have not seen this kind of tofu in America. Yet. Have you?
Esoteric veggies start to appear in the spring. I’m calling them esoteric because you won’t really find them easily in America. But yesterday, I drove down the highway to West Hartford, Connecticut to what is now my happy place—a Japanese grocery store. But what blooms in April in Japan does not bloom in April in New England. I satisfied myself with some shungiku, which is decidedly autumnal or wintery in Japan. But my eyes lit up when I found some mitsuba. That feels like Japanese spring… now what should I do with it other than using it as a garnish?
My best resource for simple Japanese recipes is the Japanese magazine Orange Page. When I lived in Japan I’d buy almost every issue. They came out twice a month. Lettuce Club was a similar magazine. These days I use the recipe database online here. These are all basic futsū recipes. I like futsū. Futsūdeii desu. Count me out for fancy time-consuming dishes.
If I was in Kyoto right now, though, I’d be eating some of the esoteric spring veggies like fukinotō and udo. I like them. But the most famous spring veggie, takenoko, leaves me cold. However, every spring I’d still cook up a batch of takenoko gohan because once a year… well, you have to savor the seasonal stuff. Put some kinome on it and it’s very good.
Other than asparagus, I am not really sure what represents haru in New England. I look out my window and there are barely buds on the trees. It’s still grey and frigid looking. Wake me up when the ringo no ki bloom.
shungiku – 春菊 chrysanthemum leaf is what the dictionary says for this. It’s very good in sukiyaki.
mitsuba – 三つ葉 honewort. Now honestly, does that have any meaning for you? It’s a green vegetable used often as a garnish as it adds a bit of oomph to a dish.
futsū – 普通 average, usual.
Futsūdeii desu – 普通で良いです。An expression I’d often use when my mother-in-law asked me what she could treat she should cook or order. I didn’t like some of the more expensive delicacies she wanted to offer me and I’d just say that she shouldn’t fuss and the usual meal was fine. Truthfully, when I visited their small town, the fried tofu was the most delicious thing there!
fukinotō – ふきのとう butterbur shoots. A spring mountain vegetable.
udo – うど spikenard or mountain asparagus. Another mountain vegetable.
takenoko – 竹の子 bamboo shoots
takenoko gohan – 竹の子ご飯 bamboo shoot rice. You cook the rice with the bamboo and a few other ingredients. It isn’t spring in Japan if you don’t eat this.
kinome – 木の芽 Japanese pepper leaves is what the dictionary tells me. It’s primarily used as a garnish and has a very distinctive taste. I have never seen it in America. So sad.
haru – 春 spring
ringo no ki – りんごの木 apple tree. Literally the tree of apples.