Postcards from Kyoto - Tofu from bean to plate: Kamo Tofu Kinki and Sosoan Restaurant

It’s impossible to describe Kyoto in a few sentences - so I’m not going to try to. Instead, I’ll share some of my favorite destinations in a series of pictures and short descriptions — as postcards if you will. Here’s my second postcard from Kyoto.

When you go to Kyoto, you must have at least one tofu meal. It's just the way it is. Fresh tofu in Japan is far better than it is anywhere else, and the tofu in Kyoto is generally held to be the best in the country. This is generally attributed to the skill, refined court and/or temple-influenced culture and the quality of the local water. Whatever the reason, to most Japanese people Kyoto means tofu, and vice versa. A visit to a fine Kyoto tofu restaurant is very likely to convert even the most die-hard carnivore into a tofu fan.

During my week in Kyoto, I was able to pursue one family business's vision of what tofu should be from beginning to end. Kamo Tofu Kinki, a company that's been in business since 1834, makes tofu and related products in two tiny workshops located in the Gion Kiya-cho area of Kyoto. Their products are sold from the storefronts as well as at select stores around the country.

Here is the Kinki main store's store, with a few pictures from the neighborhood. The streets are just about wide enough to allow two people carrying shopping bags to walk side by side, though one has to step aside if someone comes from the opposite way.

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Takase-gawa, Kyoto

The second storefront is a bit more modern, on a narrow road that runs across the Takase river, pictured above.

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My mother has Kinki's soy milk delivered weekly to her home in Yokohama. (I've told you already that my mother is way more particular about her food than I.) I must admit to not being a big fan of soy milk; to me it usually tastes like hay. Kamo Tofu Kinki's soy milk is so rich and creamy and fresh tasting, that it's likely to convert the most die-hard anti-soy milk person. Their soy milk is made from non-GM, domestically produced whole soy beans (marudaizu, 丸大豆). The very short ingredient list is very reassuring - just soy beans and an anti-foaming agent.

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They make three kinds of soy milk: regular white, which is the thickest and creamiest; red, made from naturally red soy beans and tastes quite light; and green (made from soy beans that are green when ripe) which is somewhere in between the two and is my favorite. Here are a bottle each of their red and green soy milks. The bottles are translucent, so the color you see is the actual color of the milk.

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Naturally, the tofu and other products made from this rich, delicious soy milk is bound to be good. And it is. Here's some of their bi-colored tofu, made with soy milk from the aforementioned green soy beans mixed in with white.

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The tofu workshop is really narrow. I felt really in the way there, trying to take photos, but everyone was very nice. It was interesting to see that they make tofu essentially the same way that I do when I make it at home. The only difference is that they use various pressing, forming and packing machines.

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Making tofu is a very steamy business.

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Their agemono - fried tofu products like aburaage, hiryouzu or abura-age (also called namaage) and atsu-age and hiryouzu, are made at the other store, which is actually the headquarters. The ladies of the family are in charge over here.

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Some of their fresh aburaage (thin fried tofu), called o-age-san (お揚げさん) in Kyoto dialect, cut up for sampling. It's so good you can just eat it as-is, or with a drop of ponzu sauce (a vinegar and soy sauce sauce) as Kinki recommends. You may have seen their large aburaage sheets in this post on Just Bento, where they made a long trip all the way to southern France. I wish I could take Kinki's whole operation back with me in my suitcase.

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Fresh okara is also available, in red, green and white variations of course.

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So So An, Kinki's tofu restaurant

As much as I wanted to, it's rather difficult to sample tofu products in a hotel room. So a couple of days after visiting Kinki's stores, we had lunch at Sosoan. Sosoan (爽草庵; also can be written as So So An, Sousouan or Sou Sou An) is a fairly new operation by the Hayashi family. It's a small, unassuming little tofu restaurant, located in a residential neighborhood just a block away from Tetsugaku no Michi (哲学の道) or Philosopher's Path, near the Ho-nen-in temple.

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There's a small shop where their tofu products are sold on the ground floor, and the dining rooms are upstairs. There are two dining rooms, one traditionally Japanese with tatami mats (though each table has a hole underneath so you can dangle your feet if you prefer), and a small Western style room with tables and chairs. We chose the Japanese room. It's impeccable, serene and calming, as befits a kaiseki restaurant, but still informal enough to be very comfortable.

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We had called in advance to reserve their full multi-course, tofu kaiseki menu (3800 yen). It started with this dish of tiny hotaru ika or "firefly squid" with ha-gobo (葉ごぼう, burdock plant leaves and stems), a thick green soy-cream sauce and toasted and crushed soba (buckwheat) kernels. (Note: someone emailed me asking why the hotaru ika was not glowing. Well it's cooked, and therefore not alive. A hotaru ika has to actively 'glow'; it's not naturally fluorescent.)

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This was followed by perhaps my favorite dish of all, though it's hard to choose really - two kinds of yuba (湯葉), which is made by skimming the top of hot soy milk, with freshly grated wasabi. It was both creamy and slightly chewy, and the wasabi was so fragrant that I didn't feel that usual sinus-piercing hot sensation at all.

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Next was a hot dish, a mini tounyuu nabe (soy milk hot pot) - a soy milk broth flavored with white miso, a square of silken tofu and pieces of aburaage, garnished with a sprig of nanohana (rapeseed plant), a kyo ninjin or Kyoto carrot flower and grated yuzu peel. Kyoto carrots are a deep red-orange. We scooped out the piping hot contents of the nabe into a small bowl to eat it.

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Then came a dish comprised of a piece of poached sawara (a type of mackerel), with a hiryouzu (飛龍頭) - a soft tofu dumpling of sorts, with tiny fresh sakura ebi (cherry shrimp) and pieces of fresh, crunchy takenoko (bamboo shoot).

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Here's a shot showing the inside of the hiryouzu.

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Finally, our last savory course - an ankake don (あんかけ丼) accompanied by miso soup. Ankake means that the sauce has been thickened in some way, usually with potato starch or kuzu flour, and don is a bowl of rice with topping. This ankake don had nori seaweed, thin layers of soft yuba, meaty pieces of aburaage (thin fried tofu), tofu, and sweet, meltingly soft negi (thin leeks) on top of hot rice. I think I would be very happy having this alone for lunch every week.

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The meal ended with a small dessert, a vanilla tofu parfait topped with yuzu jam.

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We departed Sosoan comfortably full and very happy, A visit to Honenin and its beautiful garden, and a stroll down Tetsugaku no Michi (Philosopher's Path (or Philosopher's Way or Philospher's Walk, etc.)) to the world famous Ginkakuji Temple, is a perfect way to spend the rest of the afternoon. (More on this area in a later Postcard...)

Practical details

All the locations mentoned are marked on my Kyoto Google map.

Kamo Tofu Kinki web site, in Japanese only. The two tiny stores where you can buy soy milk, tofu and other products are both within a few minutes' walk and a world away from the busy intersection of Shijo Dori and Kawara-cho, near the peaceful little Takase river. The nearest train station is Kawara-cho on the Hankyuu line, and the nearest bus stop is Shijo Kawara-cho. (Note: I noticed that Bon Appetit has a tofu article in their February issue that mentions Kinki. The photo there makes the workshop look more rustic than it actually is - it's really quite a modern, impeccably clean operation. It is very tiny though...it's a wonder they manage to make enough tofu to not only supply the three stores and the restaurant, but the department stores too!) Both stores are open every day from 9:00 - 18:00 (9AM to 6PM), except for the New Year's holiday period.

So So An (or Sosoan), as I've mentioned above is located in a peaceful residential neighborhood a block away from Tetsugaku no Michi (Philosopher's Path), and near to Honenin temple. The easiest way to get there is probably by taxi, but if you can manage to navigate the Kyoto City bus system, the closest stop is Minamida-cho on line 32. Jodoji on line 203 is also quite close. Ginkakuji-mae (several lines) is about a 5 minute walk away.

Tel:075-352-3131; Fax:075-352-3121 (I'm not sure how much English is spoken by all the employees there, so you might want to have a Japanese friend or your hotel concierge call for you.) Hours: 11:30 - 17:00 (last order 14:30) for lunch, and 17:00 - 21:00 for dinner. Closed Wednesdays and the first and third Thursday of each month.

Reservations are required for dinner, and recommended for lunch. The 3800 yen full kaiseki course has to be pre-ordered when making the reservation. Here is their current menu in Japanese, with prices. Please note that the food served at the restaurant is very seasonal (as it is at all good Kyoto restaurants) so what you get is very likely to be different from what I had for lunch! Also, as you can see from the photos, the fact that it's a tofu restaurant does not mean it's vegetarian, just in case you are inclined to think that way.

Some tofu terminology

I've already talked about most of these tofu foods previously on this site, but here's a list of short descriptions for you. Also see Looking a tofu for longer descriptions, and pictures of the more prosaic, supermarket versions of these products.

  • tounyuu (豆乳) - soy milk. (Japanese people didn't actually drink a lot of soy milk until fairly recently. I don't remember seeing it around at all growing up.) How to make soy milk at home.
  • tofu (豆腐)- In Japan, tofu is not some vegan-health-food to be regarded with suspicion by omnivores. It's a basic staple, enjoyed by all. How to make tofu at home.
  • okara (おから) - The leftover fibrous parts of the soy bean after the soy milk has been extracted. What to do with okara.
  • aburaage or abura-age (油揚げ)- Thinly sliced tofu that is deep fried using a special process that causes an air pocket to form inside. This air pocket is often stuffed with rice (such as for inarizushi), vegetables and other fillings.
  • atsuage or namaage (厚揚げ or 生揚げ)- Tofu blocks that have been slowly deep fried until golden brown on the outside, and solid tofu on the inside.
  • yuba (湯葉)Thin sheets of coagulated soy milk, made by skimming the surface of hot soy milk. It is available in Japan as 'raw' or fresh/uncooked, soft yuba (nama yuba) or dried into thin, brittle sheets that are reconstituted before using. You can try making your own fresh yuba by heating up unsweetened soy milk, and skimming off the skin that forms on the surface with a chopstick.
  • hiryouzu or ganmodoki (飛龍頭 or がんもどき) - fried tofu dumplings. How to make your own at home.

Footnote: The reality of the tofu business

Reading this article so far, you might get the impression that this little family business is thriving just doing things the way they have been for 180 years. In reality though, the unassuming head of the company (and the family patriarch) Mr. Hayashi, spends his time touring the country, going from department store food fair to department store food fair, hawking their tofu products, leaving his wife, son and his daughter-in-law in charge of things back home in Kyoto. Just looking at his upcoming schedule (Japanese) is exhausting. They also have an online mailorder store. I guess for such a business to survive, it's all necessary, and Kinki is commendably adapting to the times. Here's Mr. Hayashi on a recent trip to Yokohama.

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It's hard to believe that anyone who tastes the quality of their products would not become converted, but there's no denying that you pay for quality. A typical supermarket tofu block costs around 100 yen in Japan; Kinki's basic white tofu costs 350 yen. But it's so worth it.

Other Postcards from Kyoto so far

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