In the slightly cramped kitchen of Sona restaurant in West Hollywood, chef de cuisine Kuniko Yagi is standing over six bowls of tofu that she has made using three different methods in the interest of soybean curd experimentation.
It's not that she hasn't already discovered a recipe for making her own tofu perfectly -- silky-smooth, creamy and luscious, with the fresh -- really fresh -- flavor of soybeans. But she's making a point. "It seems so simple, but it means you have to get everything just right," she says.
Traditional tofu makers start with the beans, and coax them through a long, involved process to create tofu. But with just soy milk and a brine called nigari (a coagulant derived from seawater), it's easy to make kinugoshi (soft, silken) tofu at home, at least in theory. It isn't that easy to get the exact-right consistency, but for anyone who loves tofu, it's worth the effort. Kinugoshi tofu is delicate and pudding-like and almost melts on the tongue. Made fresh, it's exponentially better than any store-bought blocks of tofu.
It was shame that led Yagi down the path of tofu making, she says: "I have so many vegetarian customers that love it, and I felt embarrassed I couldn't make it, being Japanese." Maybe being an obsessive chef had something to do with it too.
Several failed attempts (including starting from scratch with soybeans, as well as using various kinds and brands of soy milk and nigari) left a trail of discarded soybean curd mush. "I was so [mad], I couldn't sleep well," she says. "I was struggling for the perfect tofu and kept asking myself, 'What's wrong with it?' "
So she made some calls that eventually led her to Shogo Kariya, the owner of Meiji Tofu in Gardena, whom Yagi calls "the tofu master."
This is his recipe for making tofu from soy milk, and it's the one Yagi uses: Add a teaspoon of liquid nigari to 500 milliliters of cold soy milk and stir. Then pour it into heat-proof bowls and cook (in a water bath or steamer) until it sets like custard. That is it. There's no heating the soy milk to bring it to a certain temperature before adding the nigari. No separating liquids from solids. No straining once it's cooked.
Kariya had figured just the right amount of soy milk (which he makes -- so he knows that the brix, or percentage of dissolved solids, is 14%) to use with a certain amount of nigari (which he imports from Japan and has magnesium chloride and other trace minerals), so that his tofu recipe works consistently. He sells both the milk ($3.50 for a half-gallon) and the nigari, which isn't cheap but will make a lot of tofu and will last almost indefinitely ($25 for a pint).
As for the method by which to cook it, Yagi uses her combination steam/convection oven.
But on a recent Saturday morning, she experimented with cooking it in a microwave and in a water bath, both on top of the stove and in the oven. It is, after all, a "matter of science," Yagi says. Hence, the six bowls of tofu.
The first three bowls of tofu were made in a 1,000-watt microwave for various cooking times (Kariya had recommended using a 700-watt microwave); they all look, to some degree, wrinkled or curdled as well as slightly discolored.
But the other three bowls of tofu, cooked in a water bath (two on the stove for different times and one in the oven), are smooth and white and slightly jiggly like creme brulee. Yagi suggests setting filled custard cups into a pan, pouring warm water about halfway up and then putting it in a 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes. A steamer works really well too, is easy to use and seems to cook the tofu more quickly.
Kariya's recipe definitely works best with his soy milk and nigari. But if you don't live within convenient driving distance of his Gardena shop, his method does work with other soy milk. It should be fresh soy milk made from just soybeans and water, the kind sold at Japanese and other Asian markets in half-gallon plastic jugs.
Japanese markets also carry liquid nigari, which has been riding a wave of popularity for its purported health benefits. "Japanese housewives put a drop or two in their tea," Yagi says. (Even Kariya suggests adding a little to soup.) The amount of nigari you use may need to be adjusted.
The better the soy milk, the better the tofu; the flavor of the soybeans really comes through, clean and slightly sweet.
Yagi tops chilled tofu with uni, diced big-eye tuna, hijiki seaweed, dashi, white soy sauce and yuzu. For vegetarians, she serves it warm with hon-shimeji mushrooms, grated ginger and garlic, white soy and finely cut nori.
It's also delicious topped simply, with a sprinkling of sea salt and finely sliced green onions, or with grated ginger and soy sauce. Or pour over a little ginger syrup, and it's almost like dessert.
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