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Travel Photos: Kyoto Tofu and Takamatsu Udon

January 17, 2012

Every city in Japan has one (or several) meibutsu: a famous food product or dish that has been grown, or produced, or perfected in that region. Okayama, where I used to live, is known for its white peaches and muscat grapes, Kanazawa for its snow crab, Fukuoka and Sapporo are each famous for (different types of) ramen, and Hiroshima and Osaka are each famous for (different types of) okonomiyaki.

And just as United Statesians might not necessarily flock to New England just for the clam chowder, or to New Orleans just for the gumbo, but will still surely try to sample a bit of each while they’re in town, meibutsu are often seen as a nearly essential aspect of tourism and travel.

And of souvenir buying! The Japanese omiyage industry thrives on a traveler’s sense of obligation to return home (and to the workplace), with a box of individually-wrapped rice crackers or cookies or mochi or pudding cups– usually some type of meibutsu depending on the region visited. Enough to share with nearly every single acquaintance not lucky enough to have accompanied the lucky traveler. My guess is that edible souvenirs probably outnumber inedible souvenirs in Japan by at least 3 to 1.

Tofu salad at a Yudofu restaurant, Kyoto

But back to the edibles…

This trip, I went out of my way at least once in pursuit of a meal. Kagawa prefecture (on the island of Shikoku) is famous for a type of udon (thick wheat noodles) called Sanuki. I went to Takamatsu city, in Kagawa, for an afternoon just to walk around, explore a bit, and eat some udon.

Udon comes served up in countless styles: you can order a bowl of udon in a curry broth (karee udon), or in a hot soup topped with sweetened tofu (kitsune udon), or an egg yolk (tsukimi udon), or tempura; or outside of a soup, you can order stir-fried yaki-udon, cold bukkake udon loaded up with toppings, or chilled zaru-udon strained on a bamboo colander with a dipping sauce on the side.

Some plastic zaru-udon on display in a restaurant window.

                               

I ordered kamaage udon. The noodles are kept steaming hot in a pot of water, until you scoop up a few to dip in a tangy soy sauce, sprinkled with scallions, ginger, and sesame seeds.

     

     

The hand-made noodles tasted fresh, with a perfect chewy consistency, so with every slurp, I enjoyed the hagotae (the texture of food when it’s eaten) just as much as the flavors.

I also made sure to set aside at least one other chilly fall afternoon for a bowl of soba noodles (udon’s thin buckwheat counterpart).

A plastic “Mt. Fuji Pile” of soba noodles in a display window, Tokyo.

Hand-made soba noodles are the meibutsu of a small city called Izumo in rural western Japan. I didn’t make it back to Izumo this trip, but I still enjoyed a delicious bowl of kitsune soba (with sweetened tofu) in Kyoto. It even came with a dab of fresh-grated wasabi root (not wasabi from a tube!) on the side: so much more pleasant and less harsh than the preservative-laden wasabi, but still very pungent.

     

Fresh-grated wasabi root; Various styles of serving soba noodles on a menu in Kyoto.

Kyoto, while famous for its food in general, is not necessarily known for its soba, but for its tofu. In particular, yudofu, or simmered tofu, is a Kyoto winter-time treat.

     

Since I usually visit Japan in the summer, and the last thing I want to do is eat anything out of a simmered hot pot, this was my first time tasting yudofu in Kyoto. Without even thinking about it, I found myself eating slowly enough to stop and savor every bite.

Yet almost more exciting than getting to try yudofu for the first time was eating yuba for the second time (first time was in Nikkou, Tochigi in 2004; yes, I have a food memory).

Yuba (a.k.a. beancurd sheet or soy milk skin) is a type of thin sheet-like tofu that naturally forms on top of simmering soy milk. That might gross you out, but I can tell you, my mouth is watering again just thinking about it. The slightly chewy texture, and umami tofu-esque savory aftertaste, not to mention the inevitably small servings, make yuba something of a delicacy. (Although now that I’m writing this, it occurs to me that it wouldn’t be too difficult to make…)

The first time I had yuba, layers and layers of the stuff were wrapped and rolled around each other into soft tofu-like dumplings, so I didn’t get to see the soy milk work its magic. This time, we had do-it-yourself yuba, simmering in a metal-lined wooden box, set up on an electric hot plate on our table. The box started out with about a centimeter of soy milk in it: enough for about seven sheets of yuba to form, one at a time.

    

Pre-simmer soy milk; The first sheet of yuba, starting to form.

     

Picking up the first sheet of yuba, action shots.

    

All the trimmings: sesame seeds, scallions, seaweed, salt, and yuzukoshou.

And the happy result of neglecting the temperature buttons on our simmering basket of yudofu (while clearly very preoccupied with the yuba): Bonus yuba! Slightly messier this time.

The yudofu basket, left to simmer a little too long, gave us some extra yuba.

Finally, while I’m on the topic of tofu, a few other wonderful ways that tofu can be eaten in Japan:

    

Silky tofu salad with creamy sesame dressing; Fried tofu and chicken meatball soup (from a convenience store!)

    

Grilled tofu in convenience store oden (plus konnyaku noodles, chikuwa fish cake, and daikon radish); With spicy mustard.

And my favorite: Agedashi-doufu. Deep-fried tofu in a tentsuyu broth, topped with scallions, ginger, daikon, bonito shavings, and seaweed.

     

Agedashi-doufu (deep-fried tofu in broth) uniquely served with shishito peppers.

Want to see more? Check out my other Japanese food installments of travel photos: one about Seafood and Sushi, one about Izakayas and Cafes, and one about Bento Boxes and Rice Dishes.

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