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A Japanese Firm Tries Making Tofu Trendy

Like rice and fish, soybean curd is losing devotees to a more Western-style diet. One maker hopes sugar will renew its appeal.


KYOTO, Japan — Tofu doughnuts, anyone?

How about tofu-cream fig shortcake, or chocolate peach soy-cream layer cake, or a pastry filled with purple sweet potato and whipped soy cream?

Japan's ancient affection for the soybean has taken a modern turn here, as Kyoto's most famous tofu maker updates both its menu and its methods in a bid to retain a clientele that is eating more meat and fast food.

In recent years, about 500 to 600 neighborhood tofu shops have been going bankrupt every year across the country, although Japan still has 16,500 such stores, according to the Japan Tofu Assn. To survive, Kyo Tofu Fujino Co. is trying to reinvent itself as an upscale, designer tofu chain.

The company already has outlets in fancy department stores in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, as well as its own specialty tofu stores and a tofu restaurant. In April, Fujino opened the Tofu Kaho confectionery shop in a quiet neighborhood of northern Kyoto in a bold bid to try to market European-style tofu sweets to the sophisticated palates of the Japanese cultural capital.

"Our future clientele is growing up on McDonald's and Mr. Donut, but we want them to learn to eat tofu," said Seiji Fujino, the company's second-generation president. "We must be the kind of store where the mother comes to buy tofu but the daughter comes along too, and we can offer her a soft cream [soy-milk ice cream cone]."

The soy soft cream contains half the calories of ordinary ice cream, Fujino said. Unlike many American soy-based ice creams, it has no "beany" taste. Fujino won't reveal his culinary secrets--although he says he has no business designs abroad.

In addition to a wide array of cakes and puddings made with tofu or other soy products, the sweet shop offers four flavors of tofu ice cream--vanilla, ginger, black bean coffee and white sesame. It bakes cookies made from the fibrous pulp called okara that is left over from the tofu-making process.

And of course, it offers a wide array of traditional and gourmet bean curds, all displayed as elegantly as fine jewelry. There is sweet, silky oboro tofu that is often served cold with soy sauce; tofu flavored with a lime-like citrus called yuzu; black bean tofu; sesame tofu; coal-grilled tofu; and deep-fried tofu with lotus root, carrot and green peas.

Tofu was introduced to Japan from China in the 7th century and remains a staple of the Japanese diet. In Kyoto, a city founded 1,206 years ago, it used to be said that "if you don't know what to serve, offer tofu." Nowadays, said a rueful Fujino, the expression might as well be, "If you don't know what to serve, go out for dinner."

Japanese tofu consumption dropped from roughly 72 pounds of bean curd per household in 1967 to about 59 pounds last year, according to an annual Japanese government survey of household habits.

Over the past 30 years, consumption of two other Japanese staples, rice and fish, has dropped even more sharply as affluent Japanese consumers have grown accustomed to a far more varied--and Westernized--diet.

In 1999, Japanese households ate just 49% of the rice and 63% of the fish they had consumed in 1970, according to data from the government's Management and Coordination Agency. Meanwhile, meat consumption rose 28%, to 91.6 pounds per household per year, the survey showed.

Still, tofu has a hallowed place on the Japanese dinner table, be it plain, boiled, fried or floating in miso soup. It's mostly eaten not as a "health food" but for its delicate flavor, although it has a new following among young female dieters.

What concerns many Japanese, however, is the purity of the soybeans that still make up a large portion of their diet. Fujino tofu, like many other brands, carries a label saying it contains no genetically modified soybeans.

Fujino continues to make custom tofu to the exacting aesthetic specifications of Kyoto's high-toned restaurants. Some even coordinate the color and shape of the bean curd with the serving dish.

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