Now reading Profile in Obsession: Kuniyoshi Yamamoto, Tofu Maker

Profile in Obsession: Kuniyoshi Yamamoto, Tofu Maker

A septuagenarian tofu maker in Kyoto, Japan.

Tofu Maker
Location: Kyoto, Japan
Age: 78

Down a narrow street in a residential neighborhood in Kyoto, Kuniyoshi Yamamoto, along with his wife and son, runs a tofu shop that has been around since the late nineteenth century. Buddhist monks were the first to establish the tradition of tofu-making in the former imperial capital; they made protein-rich soybean products like tofu (soybean curd) and yuba (fresh tofu skin) by hand to supplement their vegetarian diets. Today, Kyoto is still known for its handmade tofu, and Yamamoto’s shop is one of the oldest in the city. There’s custard-like homemade curd; tofu flavored with sesame paste, yuzu zest, and peppers; soy milk; jellies; yogurt; pudding; and soy milk soap. He sells his products to several big-name hotels in Kyoto and a few ramen stores, but also has plenty of loyal neighborhood customers.

Every day, Yamamoto wakes up at 3:30 a.m. and starts work by four. He takes off only five days per year.

My family has had this business for three generations. My grandfather was living in the countryside in Japan, in the southern part of the island. He came to Kyoto in 1897 and had to find a job. The owners of the tofu store where he worked decided to discontinue their business because they didn’t have a successor. So he decided to start his own tofu business.

Yamamoto grew up in the tofu shop and started making tofu at age ten, when he was just an elementary school student. Back then, children of that age were expected to help with the family business. This was especially true in the tofu business.

Water was gathered from the wells and the soybeans soaked overnight. Everyone was needed to maintain the pots at a simmer over the wood burning stoves. After pressing soymilk out of the mixture, they added the thickening agent. But the finicky nigari sea brine was notorious for behaving unpredictably in hot weather.

The process has changed dramatically over the past seventy years. During Japan’s rapid economic development in the wake of World War II, stainless steel machines like pressure cookers replaced the vats and clay stoves. The resulting soy milk is thickened with a coagulant—now usually calcium sulfate instead of nigari sea brine. The curds are strained out, formed into blocks, and placed in water to cool.

The soybean is the most important part of the process. The best are actually produced in China, but they were originally grown in Japan until around the time of the war. Right now, nearly 50 percent of the soybeans used in Japan are imported from the U.S. because the price of these Japanese soybeans from China is going up. The taste of American soybeans is not as good. One advantage, though, in using American soybeans is that all the beans are identical in size. They’re more consistent.

Most tofu producers don’t remove the skin, but I do it because the skin puts some bitterness into the tofu. It’s a time-consuming process, and other makers won’t do that. When you taste tofu, you taste for sweetness. That’s what you want to check for, no bitterness. Make sure that the flavor has that sweetness. I feel the thickness deep in my throat. My body reacts if it’s not good—I feel it in my throat. Success is verified when people say, “I want to taste that again!”

I have individual loyal customers living here in the neighborhood. Many are the mothers’ daughters’ daughters—families the have been coming here for generations. Also, on the weekends, some customers come by when they make a trip to Kyoto. Some are the daughters of families who live here, and they come back to visit.

Yamamoto spends about 70 percent of his work time on hands-on tofu-making. The remainder is spent on executive duties, which includes dreaming up new soybean products and ways of serving tofu. Though he doesn’t sell tofu abroad, he’s particularly interested in making tofu more appealing to Westerners.

It’s still going to take a little more time before tofu integrates into people’s daily lives in Western cultures. I believe tofu is almost always best served at a meal with beef. I’m convinced beef has the best flavor to complement tofu.

I’ve also been studying this new trend of eating tofu as a cream. Using a blender makes it soft and also releases the flavor, so that’s why blending tofu is so good. Just remove the liquid and make it into a paste, and maybe add carrot or perilla leaf.

We also have a special type of tofu designed for foreigners from Europe. It’s our new product, to be eaten as a dessert after a Western-style meal. It contains butter and tastes good with jam. Instead of bread and flour, people should eat tofu.

People should also eat less and chew many times before swallowing. The stomach needs eight hours to digest food before it’s absorbed into your body. My philosophy for a long life is to eat less.

Yamamoto himself shows no sign of slowing down. He appears to have boundless energy: he’ll run energetically up and down the stairs connecting the tofu factory to his office. His own staff can barely keep up with him.

There’s no word for my retirement in my own personal dictionary. It’s a good thing that people have a long life. Some people think working is hard, but other people, like me, think it’s enjoyment. Getting older also means you accumulate your experience. People should be working hard until age eighty.