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Sensho Nakada adds nigari, a curdling agent, to the soybean curd and carefully stirs it until it has a perfect consistency.
Sensho Nakada adds nigari, a curdling agent, to the soybean curd and carefully stirs it until it has a perfect consistency. (Chiyomi Sumida / S&S)

Ever wonder what those white, puddinglike squares of soybean curd at your local Japanese grocery were all about?

Well, those are blocks of tofu, and they have a lot to offer as healthy taste-enhancers for scores of dishes.

Maybe you tried tofu and thought it was pretty tasteless, but that’s the beauty of the food. Tofu has a slight, subtle taste, so it perfectly absorbs any flavor that’s added to it.

Try this. Sprinkle diced tofu over green salad — it’s like adding cheese. Or add mashed tofu into a meatloaf — it reduces the calories of your main dish.

Besides its role as a substitute for meats or dairy products, the health advantages of tofu are bountiful. It is a good source of essential nutrients such as protein, calcium, amino acids, vitamins, potassium, zinc and fiber.

There are two types of tofu — firm and silken. Firm, or cotton, tofu is good for fried or grilled dishes because of its solid nature. Silken tofu is good as a soup ingredient, prized for its texture. It’s often eaten “as is” in Japanese dishes with soy sauce and condiments such as green onion or ginger.

Soybean products reduce the odds of developing certain kinds of cancer, heart troubles and osteoporosis, says Masayasu Miyagi, who teaches food culture classes at the University of the Ryukyus on Okinawa.

“Eating tofu on a regular basis improves your blood circulation and boosts [your] immune system,” said Miyagi. “It is also rich in fiber. Foods that are high in fiber also help to reduce cholesterol levels.”

Tofu has been known in Asia as a healthy food for centuries, Miyagi said.

Tofu was first brought to Japan from China about 1,500 years ago, said Hironori Kijima, executive director of the Japan Tofu Association in Tokyo. He said tofu’s history in China goes back as far as 4,000 years ago.

In much the same way that green tea has become an indispensable ingredient in Japanese cuisine, tofu also has become a key part of Japanese culture that has been imported from China. More than 80 percent of people in Japan eat at least one block of tofu every week, while only 0.4 percent don’t eat tofu, Kijima said.

Tofu has been a part of the culture of Okinawa since 1404, Miyagi said. It’s part of the reason why Okinawans live so long.

There is no doubt that tofu greatly contributes to Okinawa’s reputation as the “island of longevity,” he said. The life expectancy of Okinawan women is 86.01 years old, the longest in Japan.

And Japan holds the world’s longevity title — 84.62 years old for women and 77.71 years old for men.

Ministry of Home Affairs’ data shows that an average Japanese family in the mainland spends about $63 per year on tofu, while the Okinawan family spends about $75, the most in the country.

The hands of experience stir the curd

Sensho Nakada in Okinawa City is one of about 14,500 tofu makers in Japan.

Every morning at 4 a.m., while his neighbors sleep, he and his wife Hiroko are busy at work in their small factory processing the day’s tofu. They make about 600 blocks of tofu each day. Most of it fills the stomachs of the students at 27 schools on Okinawa’s central area.

First, Nakada pours soybeans that have soaked in water overnight into a grinder. Once ground, they are steamed, and then the hot and soft beans are sent into a squeezing machine. During this squeezing process, the beans are separated into soymilk and bean curds.

Nakada then mixes nigari, a curdling agent traditionally used in tofu making, into the soymilk, carefully stirring it with a long stick. Once it reaches a certain consistency — a point only his hands with 40 years of experience know — he pours it over the wooden boxes that line the corner of the shop.

By that time, the soymilk has been transformed into bean curd. From this point on, his wife Hiroko takes over. She deftly uses a ladle to keep the heaped bean curd from running out of the boxes. This work is repeated until the forms settle. They are then pressed into solid blocks of tofu, and Hiroko cuts a huge square into a dozen of small, familiar size tofu blocks.

— Chiyomi Sumida

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