Japanese restaurant offers a tasty range of tofu-based dishesThe Korean diet is rich in tofu and tofu-based dishes. While both China and Japan have developed many varieties of tofu ― from fresh to flavored to fermented ― in their cuisines, Korean tofu dishes have remained simple, only hard and soft, and the popular recipes have remained unchanged for generations. Jeongwon Sundubu, (02) 755-7139, in downtown Seoul, for example, is a well-known diner, serving fiercely spicy tofu stew inside a messy hall. Baengnyeonok, (02) 521-1419, located opposite the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul, is clean and serves a handful of homemade tofu dishes, but again, the taste and style are strictly local.
Along with new dining trends in the country, there have been attempts to start tofu restaurants with international appeal, but restaurateurs here struggled to develop original concepts that worked. They might find some inspiration at the newly opened tofu restaurant, Shigezo, located in Bundang, a one-hour drive from Seoul.
Since its introduction in 2004 in the residential district of Setagaya-ku of Tokyo, Shigezo has gained popular appeal with currently over 90 locations in Japan. While the Japanese chain is a sleek “tofu bar” serving over 100 varieties, from tofu shabu shabu and tofu spaghetti to tofu pudding, the first Shigezo in Korea is a localized version with a limited number of tofu dishes, with a clean 205-seat dining hall, three private rooms and a 30-seat outdoor terrace.
From Seoul, the long drive is a drawback, but the trip may be worth it because the few but great tofu-based creations from Japan cannot possibly get better than this. To make the experience more Japanese, I ordered an Asahi draft beer (8,000 won, $8.55) to start.
The true tofu aficionado can savor the rare yuba, or tofu skin, which is the film skimmed from the soymilk in a curding vat during the process of making tofu. Yuba sashimi (5,000 won) is a beautiful dish: thin ivory-colored tofu skins are served on a bowl of ice cubes with a dot of green wasabi and dipping sauce on the side. This is low in calories but has a high concentration of tofu nutrients. This yuba is slightly more resilient and more mature in soybean flavor than Korea’s usual tofu.
I looked forward to the earthy sensation of Japanese miso-infused tofu (3,000 won), but they didn’t have it. Instead, the apologetic manager brought us a complimentary bowl of yuba tofu, seasoned Japanese-style with oyster mushroom, shrimp and okra. This dish, to be added in the future, I was told, had a unique taste, very vegetarian yet wonderfully savory as a meat substitute, which one couldn’t find in Korean restaurants.
Compared with Shigezo’s innovative dishes that impressed and changed the perception of Japanese diners who considered tofu a traditional food, the Korean Shigezo doesn’t offer radically creative cooking. Course meals, which cost from 15,000 won to 50,000 won, included non-tofu dishes, so my tablemates and I went for a la carte dishes of tofu, which, I was told, was made fresh daily from 100 percent Korean soybeans.
Our favorite was a tofu and tuna carpaccio (20,000 won), drizzled with tangy, herbal Italian dressing. From afar, the white tofu slabs looked like mozzarella cheese, but the texture and taste was silky and bland, rather than the ripe taste of Italian cheese. But even without the cheese, the recipe worked very well for a light starter.
Dishes such as agedashi tofu (10,000 won), fried tofu served with bonito flakes, eggplant and daikon oroshi (grated radish), are authentically Japanese, but others had some twists. For instance, Southeast Asian spring rolls (10,000 won) had tofu strips inside rice paper wraps, and the mild taste of the tofu was easily buried by other stronger flavors, such as the shrimps and Thai sauce. Biting into classic yakigyoza (10,000 won), or fried dumplings, I first thought they were too mushy, but then remembered that this was the tofu version. So, not bad.
In the plain Japanese noodles, or udon, the waiters said, soymilk powder was mixed in “somewhere,” but again I didn’t detect anything different, other than a slightly more chewy texture to the plump noodles. Japanese beef rice also came with cubes of tofu. Tofu makes such an invisible or near-tasteless addition to various dishes from around the world it can only heighten the health quotient in our body, which perfectly justifies desserts made from tofu.
I’ve heard so much about the famous tofu desserts of Japan, but are they really edible? The only two desserts they had on the menu, tofu ice cream and tofu cheesecake, have both been best-sellers in Japan as well as Korea since the restaurant’s opening in June, so we opted for cheesecake (5,000 won) and ordered it to go.
One hour later at home, what looked like a regular tofu curd, as it turned out, shocked our taste buds. Because the cake had been kept frozen, the texture was a little brittle, but showcased a glorious use of tofu. Though not dense and buttery like a classic cheesecake, it was pleasantly light and wonderfully cheesecakey in flavor, bordering on a yogurt-flavored ice cream. Now, we regretted not having tried the awful-sounding tofu cocktail at Shigezo, but we did get to envision our future with no rice, no flour, only tofu. It might actually be great.
English, Japanese: Not on the menu, but spoken by managers.
Tel: (031) 718-7500
Hours: 11:30 a.m.- 3 p.m.; 5-11 p.m. daily.
Location: The first floor of the Posvil building in Bundang, Gyeonggi province; in front of the Ori subway station, Bundang line, exit 7.
Dress code: Come as you are.
by Ines Cho