Part Three: Yuba and Tofu in Kyoto
Japan takes its local specialties, particularly food, very seriously. Whenever I go on a trip, I get asked if I tried whatever that region’s famous cuisine is. Osaka is famous for okonomiyaki お好み焼き and takoyaki たこ焼き (not really high cuisine, but food that reminds me of my time there); Fukui is famous for crab; northern Ishikawa, oysters, 鰤 buri (yellowtail), and isaza; Kumamoto, horse-meat-sashimi; and Hakata and Sapporo, local-style ramen, just to name a few. Kyoto’s specialty is tofu.
After visiting the 北野天満宮 Kitano Tenmanguu (Shrine) for the monthly flea market on the 25th, we stopped in a Toyouke Chaya to try yuba 湯葉. Yuba is thin strips formed from the product that is skimmed off the top of the liquid during the production of tofu 豆腐. And while that sounds gross to the uninitiated American, trust me, it’s delicious.
I feel like tofu has a bad rap in the US. When I was a kid, I had the impression that tofu was this soap-bar-looking thing that only weird hippies and Clarissa Darling’s mom ate. (Give me a break, I’m a Midwesterner by birth.) By the time I hit college, tofu was popularized as a meat substitute for vegetarians, and, by grad school, a protein source for vegetarians and vegans.
Moving to Japan has taught me that tofu is NOT a meat substitute. Tofu is a glorious food unto itself. American tofu tends not to be so fresh nor locally produced, although there are tofu producers in the US now. Japanese tofu, on the other hand, is consistently good–the tofu I buy for cooking is always fresh and tasty–and cheap, at roughly 93 yen ($1) for 300 grams. Kyoto, however, boasts some of the best tofu in the world. Tofu is not food in Kyoto–it’s cuisine.
Toyouke Chaya, located next to Kitano Tenmanguu, has three amazing tofu courses available. The three of us all ordered the least expensive lunch set, the 梅 plum course, for about 2000 yen a piece. This course featured a number of small dishes of tofu and vegetable dishes as well and a bowl of white rice and houjicha ほうじ茶, roasted green tea. We ate ganmo がんも, deep-fried tofu with vegetables mixed in (top center); nerigoma hairi nama yuba sashimi 練ごま入り生湯葉刺身, thin strips of “raw” yuba (“tofu skin”) in sesame paste (bottom center); take no ko タケノコ, bamboo shoots (in the pink dish); miso with tofu (in the covered black bowl); and tofu mixed with sesame. I will never look at tofu the same way again.
The food is on the pricey side with a lunch set for 2000-3000 yen, but the quality of the food and the pleasant atmosphere are well worth the price.
とようけ茶屋 Toyouke Chaya
Closed on Thursdays unless Thursday is the 25th of the month (the day of the Tenmanguu flea market).
Price: for a yuba set, 2000-3000 yen. For a la carte or smaller meals, 700-1100 yen. I recommend the yuba set lunch.