Friday, September 25, 2009

Chilled Tofu 冷や奴

Chilled Tofu 冷や奴 (Mark's book p16)
Deep fried tofu pouch stuffed with Natto 油揚げの納豆はさみ

This is a very simple and also classic summertime dish in Izakaya. One of the problems with this dish is to get good quality fresh tofu, which is sometimes not so easy in Untied States. Although, packaged tofu like those from Nasoya is available in any grocery store, they are not really suited for this dish. When I lived in Japan, there were still stores selling tofu made fresh daily (this may reveal my age). Now even in Japan, these small individually owned artisanal tofu stores are extremely rare if any survive. Fortunately, there are some Japanese Tofu companies making good quality tofu in the US. The one I am using here today is from Kyo-zen-an  京禅庵 which is a Kyoto company making tofu and tofu-related products. As I understand, from their website, they have been making tofu in New Jersey from USDA certified organic American soy beans using an authentic traditional method of tofu making. The tofu is packaged and pasteurized. It lasts much longer than the old fashioned style block of tofu which was scooped from a large vat of cold water; the day it was made was the day it was consumed. I found that this brand is good enough for this dish. There are several other good ones but they are all only available in a Japanese grocery store. I used their silken tofu.

The toppings for this dish usually include chopped scallion, perilla, bonito flakes, and thin strips of dried "nori" sheet and grated ginger root. Pour soy sauce over before eating. I actually prefer to use "sashimi soy sauce" or "concentrated soup base for Japanese noodles"; both can be bought in a Japanese grocery store. Again, you must be a chopstick jedi to eat this without the help of a spoon.

Deep fried tofu pouch stuffed with Natto 油揚げの納豆はさみ
I made this dish closely following the classic recipe using a few modifications of my own. Mark's book has an interesting modern variation.  In his version the tofu pouch is stuffed with cheese rather than "natto" (p80), which I have not tried yet. Natto 納豆 or fermented soy beans is one of the Japanese foods difficult to like because of the smell and sticky texture. Every culture appears to have this type of fermented food. Very ripe and runny cheeses from France, Vegemite from Australia, Surströmming from Sweden and so on. Only people who grew up eating this type of food will like it or can eat it. My wife, who is not Japanese but who enjoys almost any Japanese delicacy including some very challenging ones such as a sea cucumber, would not eat "natto" for many years. She did not like it at all. Then, my mother told us some years ago that if you stir it more than 100 or 400 times (I am not sure how many times exactly), the smell will dissipate and becomes easier to eat (she saw this technique on one of the Japanese TV programs). So I tried this method and, now, my wife will eat natto especially when used in this dish.

Natto used to come frozen from Japan but now we see non-frozen natto. I am not sure if these are made here or still imported from Japan. The one I used appears to be made in Japan. If you read Japanese, you may want to check the blog/column in Nippon Keizai Shinbun web site...interesting discussion and information about natto and the regional differences in how natto is prepared. There are quite a few natto recipe sites (all in Japanese) and here is one example. Some of the recipes are quite outrageous! This year, while in Japan, we acquired a special stirrer designed for mixing natto and it is pictured here.

The two prongs are slightly different in length with their tips shaped like scoops and surface has many small round protrusions as seen here in the picture. This works much better than the usual bamboo chopsticks. This device aerates natto very well without much effort. Add mustard, chopped scallion, and the sauce that came with the package (or use your own mustard and sauce if you like). As a kid, I remember preparing natto with the addition of a bit of sugar. Apparently using sugar in natto is done in only certain parts of Japan. These dialects of food culture in Japan, specifically about natto preparation, has been extensively discussed in the blog/column I mentioned above.  Mix vigorously for few minutes. Meanwhile prepare the "abura-age"油揚げ or fried tofu pouch. We get a small "inari" 稲荷 version frozen.  (This is for making "inarizushi", seasoned tofu pouch stuffed with vinegared rice). Pour hot water over it in a colander. This will thaw the pouch and remove some excess oil. Press it between paper towels to remove excess water. Cut one end (leaving three edges intact) and carefully open the pouch. Spoon in the prepared natto. Do not over fill and pat it flat. Place it in a toaster oven and toast until both sides get brown and crispy. You could then just serve with bit of soy sauce. (You could do this dish using a frying pan with small amount of oil but a toaster oven works better. Be careful not to spill the natto inside the taster oven though, it will make a big mess.)  I took mine out of the toaster oven when it is 80% done.

On one side of the stuffed tofu pouch, spread a thin layer of the mixture of mayonnaise and citrus miso I made for the simmered daikon dish (in equal amounts) with chopped perilla mixed in.  Put the pouch back in the toaster oven until the surface browns (a few minutes). I am glad my wife likes to eat even this dish now.

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