It doesn’t have sushi’s bright colors, ramen’s mixtures of flavors, tempura’s counterpoint between crispy and soft or yakitori’s juicy texture; actually its adversaries refuse to even include it in the same category as the above considering it (somewhat justifiably) an “ingredient” instead of a complete dish while some others, even more on the extreme side (and like all extremists, insufficiently educated) believe it is a recent invention of born-again health maniacs and à la mode vegetarians unable to appreciate true food. But anyone who makes even a hasty pass from a Japanese kitchen realizes immediately its flexibility and adaptability, its main role in hundreds of recipes and that such a discreet taste would have made it unavoidably alluring to a culture loving to love discreetness.
Of course it was invented by the Chinese –like all their other great creations, its birth is lost in the centuries with most prevailing theories those that put it before Jesus’. Similarly temporally undefinable is its passage to Japan although some put it in the luggage of the first Buddhist priests who were much more unyielding in matters related to the consumption of meat but who also needed its high protein content. Still, judging from the fact that in the Edo period existed a book (and a best-seller no less) describing 100 recipes containing it, we can say with certainty that the dwellers of the biggest city in the world –of the 18th as well as the 21st century- really appreciated it. And they left it as a gastronomical heritage to their descendants long before the superstars mentioned in the beginning of this writing (as well as thousands of others about Japanese cuisine) entered the latters’ vocabulary and table.
In supermarkets (where most modern Japanese buy it today –the older ones prefer the specialized shops making it every day although now these can only be found in old-fashioned neighborhoods) it is available in tens of varieties: “silken” kinu (絹) swimming in liquids, “cotton” momen (木綿) and more solid, fried in thin, almost elastic abura-age (油揚げ) slices or in thick atsu-age (厚揚げ) blocks, mixed with vegetables in ganmodoki (がんもどき) balls, dried koya (高野), puréed okra (おから) and many more, depending on the use imaginative cooks can think of. Winter or summer, cold or hot, savory or sweet, alone, next to or inside other dishes, the white flesh of tofu (豆腐) soy-milk curd brings together all Japanese cuisine coloring the flavor of every other ingredient with its own subtle essence and proving the Aesop’s ancient adage about gentleness and force.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.