It is said that one of the key differences between the East and the West is the way things are perceived and subsequently named. Without denying the importance of appearances in the West, in Japan, the way that something looks is often more important than what it actually comprises — and this is often reflected in its name.

This is certainly true of tofu, and the way the word is used in Japanese and in English. In Japan, anything that is shaped like tofu, textured similarly or served in a like manner is referred to as tofu. Whether the item contains soybean or not (and even though the characters that comprise tofu read “fermented beans”), if it fits the outward appearance, it is called tofu. Tamago-dofu (egg tofu) and goma-dofu (sesame tofu) are classic examples of this. One is made with just eggs and stock, the other with sesame paste and a starch thickener.

News photo
Agedashi-dofu (deep-fried tofu in broth)

At the other extreme is the English use (and misuse) of the word to mean anything made with soybeans or bean curd. Witness tofu ice cream, tofu burgers and the wide range of similar items in the health-food aisle. None of these foodstuffs are made from proper tofu but are rather just processed soy products. Here, substance precedes form — or, maybe it’s just marketing: Soybean Ice Cream just doesn’t have the same ring as Tofu Dream Ice Cream.

Cultural perceptions aside, the original tofu is simply bean curd, as created two millennia ago in China, and there are countless recipes utilizing it. Agedashi-dofu is just one coming back into season.

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As the cool weather approaches, everything that was once served cold at the table is reincarnated as a warm or even a hot dish. This is no less true of plain, ordinary bean-curd tofu. If the summertime demands a cool slab of hiya-yakko (abbreviated yakko, basically cold tofu just taken out of the container and garnished with scallions, grated ginger, shaved bonito and soy sauce), then the crisp air of autumn and the chill of winter beg one of the two classic warm tofu dishes: yu-dofu (simmered tofu); and its less elegant but more robust cousin, agedashi-dofu (deep fried tofu in broth).

Agedashi-dofu may be made with standard momen-dofu (“cotton” tofu), but results are best when using the unstrained, smooth kinugoshi-dofu (“silk” tofu). Kinu makes for a better end product, but is more delicate and must be treated with care. While the recipe calls for katakuri-ko (potato starch) to dust the tofu before frying, cornstarch or even fine kuzu starch may substitute.

Two sauce variations — a simple sauce made with koikuchi shoyu or a starch-thickened ponzu sauce — may be enjoyed equally, but if you have only tried standard agedashi-dofu in a restaurant, you might want to try your hand at the ponzu variation. In refined establishments in Kyoto, a lighter sauce is often made with usukuchi shoyu, but I find these slightly more intense versions easier to make at home. The standard version given here is garnished with ginger and scallions, while the ponzu sauce is accompanied by grated daikon with chili powder and sliced scallions. The chili powder is called momiji oroshi (literally, grated maple), which refers to the color, a bright red from the Japanese chili powder (ichi-mi).

Occasionally served with the sauce on the side, I prefer pouring the sauce directly over the tofu to eliminate dipping and infuse the entire dish with flavor.

2 blocks kinugoshi-dofu, (350-400 grams) each halved
frying oil

For standard dashi sauce

250 ml dashi
50 ml mirin
50 ml koikuchi shoyu
1 bunch scallions, sliced finely
1 tablespoon ginger, peeled and grated

For ponzu sauce

250 ml dashi
50 ml mirin
50 ml ponzu
2 tablespoons katakuri-ko (or cornstarch) dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
1 bunch scallions, sliced finely
1 tablespoon daikon, grated and mixed with chili powder

1) Remove the tofu from the package and place in a saucepan. Pour hot water over the tofu and bring to a quick boil to remove the raw tofu taste. Remove from heat and run under cold water until cool.

2) Wrap the tofu loosely in a damp cloth and place on a cutting board with a small plate or two on top to squeeze out excess moisture. Drain in this manner for 30 minutes to an hour.

3) In a sturdy pot, heat the oil over a medium flame to 180 C.

4) Dust the drained tofu well with katakuri-ko and place in hot oil. Fry until just before it turns a golden color. The tofu should be very warm, if not hot, to the center.

5) Remove the tofu from the oil and let the excess oil run off.

6) Place each tofu half in a serving dish and prepare the sauce.

7) For standard dashi, combine dashi, mirin and shoyu in a pot and bring just to a boil, then extinguish flame. Pour hot dashi over each serving of tofu and garnish with ginger and scallions.

8) For ponzu sauce, combine dashi, mirin and ponzu in a pot and bring to near boiling, then add dissolved katakuri-ko and stir until thickened slightly. Pour hot sauce over each serving of tofu and garnish with grated radish and scallions. Serves four.

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