Diane Durston, in her beautiful book, Old Kyoto, describes her chance discovery of a small yuba shop a couple of blocks from Kyoto City Hall. On that first visit, she had never heard of yuba and thought she’d stumbled into a paper maker’s, as she watched the proprietor lift thin white sheets from rectangular vats of hot liquid and hang them to dry on wooden rods above.
On that and subsequent visits, the owner introduced her to what he was actually making. Soybeans are first soaked overnight and then ground before being boiled for several hours. The boiled mass is then pressed between heavy stones to extract the rich soy “milk”. This is heated in shallow wooden vats so that a skin forms on the surface. That skin, lifted off in sheets, is yuba.
Of course, many customers buy the yuba fresh but the sheets are also dried, to be reconstituted in hot stocks and soups. I’ve even had it dried and smoked, chopped small and scattered over a salad like bacon bits or cheese.
But in our five days in Kyoto, our plans didn’t take us anywhere near the shop Durston discovered, and with so much else to see, I decided reluctantly to set aside my wish to see yuba being made.
On a sunny Kyoto day filled with one beautiful temple after another, we ambled slowly from Kennin-ji Temple and Yasui Konpira-gu Shrine to Yasaka-no-to Pagoda. As we turned into a narrow street, the pagoda looming skywards in the distance, I peered into an open shop front and my heart skipped a beat. Unlike Durston, but thanks to her book, I knew exactly what the shallow vats of steaming white liquid meant and we quickly stopped for an impromptu snack.
This little store had certainly modernised beyond the one Durston visited – the vats were made from strong white plastic held in a metal tray, heated with modern plumbing rather than open fires. But the process and product was clearly as she had described.
Dried yuba was on sale in packets and a giant plastic ice cream cone made me wonder if they sold yuba ice cream. But it was the fresh tofu skin I was after. On a black laminated sheet, I pointed to the picture of a little dish of fresh yuba. The shop keeper smiled and nodded at me to take a seat on one of the wooden stools, where I watched as she walked around the vats, checking on the thickness of the skins forming in each, and then quickly but carefully lifted a sheet into a small waiting dish.
After adding a dash of soy sauce, she passed it to me with a shy but encouraging smile and I happily tucked in. Still warm, the skin had a soft, silky yet chewy texture and a rich, fresh creaminess – the flavour held a subtle gentle savouriness.
I was tempted to order another portion immediately, but given that we were headed towards an amazake specialist near the pagoda, where we would enjoy more delicious snacks, I resisted.
Our visit lasted only a few minutes, but remains a strong and wonderful food memory from our first trip to Japan.