The History of Tofu
Bean curd or TOFU is one of the world’s favorite ingredients. By smashing soybeans that was soaked in water, along with squeezed soy milk, chloride magnesium from salt making and bittern coagulant mixture, the manufactured solidified goods then become tofu. Originating from China, it is consumed on a daily basis in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia etc.
Silken tofu, tender and soft on the throat, firm tofu solidified with reduced moisture or even freeze-dried tofu. Among the varieties of tofu that exists, the silken tofu developed as Japan’s unique product.
To begin with, tofu is said to have arrived in Japan from China during the 7th to 8th century of the Nara period. Interaction with the continent prospered along with the transmission of Buddhism. Although not clearly evident, it is said that tofu was introduced around the time. For a long while, tofu is thought to be eaten by privileged minorities such as monks and noble class.
Tofu first appeared in Japan’s literature book in 1183, Heian period. The capital city of the Heian period was Kyoto and the capital of Nara period before that is now known as the Nara prefecture (奈良県) where the character ‘唐符 (tofu)’ appeared in the offering of Kasuga shrine. In other words, tofu was presented on the altar as an offering to god.
Furthermore, within the letter written in the latter half of the 12th century Kamakura period was the word ‘Ground Tofu (すり豆腐)’. From the 14th century Namboku period to the Muromachi period, tofu related matters drastically increased in temple documents. From this, it is understood that tofu is closely connected to Buddhism and had spread as a vegetarian ingredient for zen monks.
What’s more, how boiled tofu came to be was due to its vegetarian cuisine originated from the Nanzenji temple of Kyoto, however there are no document materials to support the fact. Nevertheless, for monks who were prohibited from eating meat, tofu was thought to be an extremely important protein source.
After the 14th century Muromachi period, as tea ceremonies spread, vegetarian cuisines of shrines and temple started to permeate towards the masses. Towards mid Muromachi, tofu purchases, Nara tofu, Uji tofu and so forth emerged from historical documents. At the time, tofu-making was not yet practised but tofu preservation technique using water streams were invented. Gradually it became actively made in Kyoto and its fine waters.
From the start, the land of Kyoto was blessed with high quality groundwater. Linking with Yamazaki whiskey and Fushimi’s sake brewing. The underground waters of Kyoto proves to be crucial as tofu are primarily made of water. The reason why tofu was being actively made in Kyoto was due to the fulfilling of 3 conditions. First, the existence of a transmitter of the monk’s vegetarian cuisine culture (The role of Buddhism and ones who preaches it teaching and standards or in other words the media of past times). Second, the abundance of quality water had made it possible to produce tasty tofu. Third, Kyoto being a mountainous terrain, tofu was sought after as a source of protein. As a result, in Kyoto, tea houses mainly serving Dengaku (skewered pieces of tofu baked and coated with miso) was born in the early days of the Edo period around year 1596 to 1615. Fast forward 150 years later, in Edo (Tokyo), the tea house serving Dengaku formed on shrine grounds mid Edo in year 1756 to 1757. It could be concluded that there was a correlation between the substantiality of seafood as a protein source in Edo (Tokyo) at the time. Tofu dishes can be eaten as it is but can also be made into boiled tofu, grilled tofu, deep-fried tofu and is a necessary ingredient for hotpots. There are lots of dishes and processed goods which includes tofu (such as tofu skin, deep-fried tofu, thick fried-tofu). To now, it is eaten regularly in Japan.
Why did boiled tofu flourished in Nanzenji?
Nanzenji is the head temple of the Nanzenji faction of Rinzai school (臨済宗南禅寺派) of Buddhism and was founded in 1291. Among all of Japan’s zen temple, Nanzenji possesses the most formality. Rinzai school of Buddhism is a sect of Buddhism introduced by China in the 14th century. The undertaking of 座禅 (Zazen / Zen Meditation) training and pursuing buddha’s enlightenment kind. That ‘Zen’ Steve Jobs loved. Tofu was being vigorously made in Kyoto entering the 15th century, its origin being how it was served as a menu of vegetarian cuisine and before the gate of Nanzenji, a boiled tofu shop dedicated to the temple was set up. The boiled tofu before was not cooked in what is known as dashi (soup stock) now, but rather a grilled tofu similar to that of an Oden. Also monks started to serve tofu to the visitors of Nanzenji as their kind of a side job, Nanzenji’s boiled tofu continue to grow even more popular.
Experience historical boiled tofu of “Nanzenji Junsei Shoin (南禅寺 順正書院)”
Junsei Shoin was established in mid Edo period as a medical school by a doctor Shinguu Ryoutei (新宮凉庭) who specialized in dutch studies and learned western medical science through Netherland’s text. Inside the building which is arranged with tiled roof and cypress bark, while lectures on medical science were given, it became a cultural salon where Daimyo lords and writers assemble to exchange discussions with Ryoutei who mastered dutch studies. Junsei Shoin which was documented in Kyoto’s guide “Karaku Meishou zue (花洛名勝図会)” in the end of Edo period, is currently being used as restaurant serving Kyoto-style Kaiseki cuisine (京会席). Additionally, this place is recorded as the country’s tangible cultural property.
We needed to try the popular boiled tofu of Kyoto’s Nanzenji temple and so proceed to make reservations. With its connection to water in mind, we were curious about the history behind and wanted to enjoy the boiled tofu. As it was known as grilled tofu previously, the boiled tofu cooked in konbu we had eaten were indeed completely different, yet, the structure’s charm lingering from the Edo period allowed us to time slip into the past.
From the drawing room’s entrance way, curved around the stone gates which is also included as a tangible cultural property, a borrowed scenery garden of Higashiyama widens. Borrowed scenery is a technique from China where, the garden exterior and forests nature are used as a model to create a background scenery within the garden. Integrating the foreground garden with the background scenery, truly the beauty garden of Asia. A technique passed down from Japan’s 12th century Heian period. Junsei created in the Edo period has also implemented this craft. 1200 square meters of water flowing from the lavish site of the Nanzenji temple foothill, the first bud of spring, azaleas, irises, lotuses, flowers and trees are cultivated. Carps swimming vividly in the water’s surface, autumn colors and the sound of insects, Winter’s snowy landscape, a sophisticated presentation from every season. During supper, you could also enjoy the lighted up garden after dark.
Amongst the ample water flow, capitals are born, Buddhism are preached, temple rises, and while numerous fights occurred, culinary culture beginning from sake and tofu ceaselessly blossom. In the circulation of these beautiful water stream, people gather, experiencing life from now on. Animals surround the spring which serves as a place to drink water and the same applies to humans.
Articles about this trip:
- The Water Voyage – A trip to HYOGO ARIMA, KYOTO FUSHIMI, OHARA, and MIYAMA
- The Water Voyage – Water Episode 1 – From the Azuchi-Momoyama period, Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s favorite “ARIMA ONSEN” made from an ‘active fault’. Lodge: Arima Onsen Gekkoen Korokan (月光園 鴻朧館)
- The Water Voyage – Water Episode 2 – Known for its waters, the “Suntory Yamazaki Distillery” in-between the Osaka Prefecture (大阪) and Kyoto Prefecture (京都) boundary
- The Water Voyage – Water Episode 3 – Uji-gawa river famous waters / Famous fine sake brewed from the waters of Fushimi. Lodge place: Momoyama Onsen Tsukimikan (桃山温泉 月見館)
- The Water Voyage – Water Episode 4 – The origin place of vegetarian cuisine and boiled tofu, “Junsei Shoin” of Nanzen-ji. Pure water taken from the foot hill of Nanzen-ji flows through a majestic garden; within it, the site of a medical school from the Edo period.