Yoshimasa Kwashima always knew he’d end up running the family business. “Probably eighth generation,” he says, guessing at his place in the lineage of tofu-making sons. But before stepping into his father’s shoes, he embarked on a self-imposed exile to the big city, working first as a salaryman. He sought to develop skills unrelated to the family business. “No matter what you end up doing, it’s better to get out and learn something unrelated to get a different perspective,” he says. “That way, you can see your goals more clearly.”
Kawashima is a spritely 65 years old. His gray hair is buzzed short and he’s quick to flash a charming smile. “Once I was able to consider our craft from an outsider’s point of view, I more readily understood the quality of our tofu. I saw ways I could make it better,” he adds with characteristic self-assurance. “I came up with my own way of doing things from the start.” Returning to his hometown, Karatsu, with new ideas and grand plans, he took over his father’s business and overhauled the process of tofu-making.
Kawashima is forever in pursuit of flavor. He seeks after it with a scientific mind and a romantic soul, qualities ever present in cooks and craftsmen alike. Recalling those early days of experimentation he says, “I wanted to make naturally delicious tofu. I wanted to preserve the essence of the soybean and its flavor.” Though he would spend years perfecting his tofu, the foundation of his renown lies in his radical end treatment of tofu, his solution for preserving flavor.
In an era before refrigeration and airtight packaging, tofu was crafted early in the morning and transported to market in buckets of cool well-water that preserved it for the duration of the day. But such lengthy water baths leeched tofu of flavor, leading to its longstanding reputation as bland food. “When you soak tofu in water it loses about half of its inherent flavor. It is no longer appetizing.” Kawashima knew there must be a better way. In his quest, he conceived of zarudofu, tofu in a basket. Rather than press tofu into cubes to be soaked in water, “I simply placed soft tofu in a basket, let it drain naturally, and put it out for sale. Everyone thinks of tofu as firm and square but this tofu was soft and round. It didn’t sell for 2 years!” he exclaims, the laugh lines around his eyes crinkling.
But the secret to success is talent paired with tenacity, and confident in his new product, Kawashima was certain that its flavor would sell itself. “Every day I went to restaurants and let people try a bit for free.” Eventually a few local restaurants placed orders. And slowly through word of mouth, zarudofu gained popularity. At the same time in a serendipitous stroke, a national shipping company established the first refrigerated service in Japan. Kawashima began sending zarudofu to restaurants in Tokyo and taking gift orders from all over the country. His 30 kilo a day operation expanded rapidly and the success of his tofu was assured.
In pre-dawn darkness in the old merchant section of town, Kawashima Tofu is the only business already well into its workday. Twenty five years after rebuilding his father’s operation and reinventing the making of tofu, Kawashima’s principal duty is now oversight. At 6:30 A.M. after finishing his morning rounds, Kawashima confers briefly with Hirohumi, his son and apparent successor. They exchange a few words in a dim, cavernous bay beside a bank of steel refrigerators. As Kawashima leaves, Hirohumi returns to the bright, steaming industrial kitchen next door.
In the same compound of rooms where his forefathers worked, he and a small team clad in white suits, rubber aprons, and boots produce 600 kilos of tofu each morning. Though Kawashima garnered his renown with zarudofu, his company continues to produce traditional block tofu in several varieties – firm, silken, grilled, and fried – as well as pure soymilk and okara, the mashed bean byproduct of pressing.
The work is still done primarily by hand, with only a few automated processes. Nigari, a magnesium chloride coagulant extracted from seawater, is added to warm, fresh soymilk. The curds are then pressed into moulds until firm. There is no formula for how long they are pressed, but running a blade through a block, Hirohumi can gauge its consistency by its resistance. Once removed from the moulds, the tofu is cut into cubes, cooled in freshwater baths, then promptly packaged and shipped to supermarkets throughout the country.
It’s a deceptively simple process. But Kawashima continues to refine each step in pursuit of a purer flavor. Realizing early on that the foundation of great tofu is great soybeans, he sourced the best he could find from a select few growers around Kyushu. Meanwhile, he began methodical inquiries into the 12-hour dry bean presoak that tends to impart fermented flavors. He spent years finessing details such as salinity and temperature in order to distill a clear soybean taste.
Kawashima explains his commitment to excellence. “These farmers grow the best soybeans. It’s my responsibility to restore this true taste of soybean to tofu. If I don’t make good tofu, no one benefits.” Kawashima is a man of ideas, interested in food culture, the interdependence of producers, and the economics of quality. “If you make a good product you can sell it for a good price. If you sell it for a good price, you can compensate your employees well and buy better ingredients. But we have to accept the price of quality,” he says. “If I don’t pay the asking price for good quality beans, that farmer won’t thrive.” Kawashima sees his business as one node in a network of producers that only profits when each operates at its highest potential.
Zarudofu exemplifies usuaji, the Japanese notion of enhancing flavor without masking the essence of a food. It is a taste that is subtle -- light but layered, refined and true.
At 7:30 A.M., Hirohumi scoops up a mound of creamy, white tofu and overturns it into a bamboo basket. Though the bulk of the day’s zarudofu is packaged and sent to restaurants and markets throughout Japan, two baskets are brought to a small room that fronts the tofu atelier. At an L-shaped bar made of white cedar, nine guests are seated each morning and midday for a tofu tasting menu.
The meal opens with a small cup of warm soymilk alongside a dish of okara, seasoned with stock and a hint of salt. “People are often amazed by the simplicity of the presentation,” remarks Kawashima. “What they taste is tofu’s essential flavor, completely natural.”
Individual portions of zarudofu follow, spooned from the pillow of tofu resting atop a handmade crock. The silken consistency is like mousse, with a slight grain that yields against the tongue. The flavor is faint but distinct, its natural sweetness amplified with a sprinkling of salt or soy.
Zarudofu exemplifies usuaji, the Japanese notion of enhancing flavor without masking the essence of a food. It is a taste that is subtle — light but layered, refined and true. Usuaji is particularly savored by an older generation in Japan who lived through an era of postwar scarcity. Kawashima learned to appreciate usuaji from his grandmother. “Money was tight, so we ate simple foods,” he recounts. “We used to trade tofu for the least expensive fish we could find.” His grandmother simmered the fish with only a light bit of soy, occasionally adding a little ginger or pickled plum. “That’s the food I ate and how I ate it, so that’s the palate I developed. But we’re losing that respect for delicate flavors,” he laments. In his quest to reform and refine the pure flavor of tofu, Kawashima works to preserve usuaji for future generations.