Tofu skin, or yuba, is a favourite traditional food in the Kansai region. It’s made by heating soy milk and skimming off the skin that forms on the surface. It can be eaten fresh or dried. Yuba has a simple but elegant flavour, and at eighty-percent protein with healthy fats, it’s one of the foods that has kept the Japanese slim and vigorous.
Originally, tofu skin was made in pans heated directly by charcoal, but later it was found easier to control the process if the pans were suspended in tubs of very hot water. But Daihan in Hikone is the only place that still makes it the old way.
The manufactory is located in an unassuming house in Seribashi not far from the Heiwado department store. Outside are stacked bales of cut wood obtained from north of Lake Biwa. Inside, Kajita Masaki stands watching seven pans of soy milk as they form wrinkled skin on top. He’s the third generation to run the shop, which dates from the Meiji period. After working in Osaka for ten years, he took over from his grandfather. On this summer day, it’s particularly hot in the small workshop, but the aroma of the warming soy milk is beguiling.
Like yuba, Kajita-san is mild and gentle. Even after a lifetime of making tofu skin, he becomes very animated when he talks about making and eating it.
“It’s just a question of waiting patiently for the skin to form, but the product has it’s appeal. For something that’s so light and simple, it fetches a high price, but people are still drawn to buy it. These days, it’s regarded as a ‘health food’ and as such it’s attracting new patrons.”
The pans, which are 50 cm across and 5 cm deep, are recessed into ovens made of earth and straw. Charcoal, sourced from a charcoal burner in Taga, heats the pans directly from underneath.
“You can tell how the charcoal is burning by the pattern of creasing in the skin. Even creasing is better”.
Kajita-san busies himself turning over the coals with metal chopsticks. When he deems a skin ready, he deftly lifts it out with stick and either hangs it up, or winds it onto a section of bamboo. The former becomes fresh yuba, the latter, dried.
“As the day progresses, the soy milk in the pans gets richer, and it burns a little making an altogether different product.”
This crispy soy delicacy is served as a side garnish at Hana-Shoya restaurant. With the modern hot-bath production method, there’s none of the unevenness that results in these different flavours and textures.
“I want to preserve this varied aspect of yuba production, which would otherwise disappear.”
The manufacturing process involves almost no waste. Okara, a by-product of soy milk, is delicious in itself and is sold in the little shop adjoining the workshop. The coals that remain of the wood burned to prepare the soy milk are used to light the charcoal under the pans.
There are many interesting details in the workshop – above the door is an image of the Buddhist saint Kōbō Daishi, and above the stove for making the soy milk is a charm against fire. There are various flower arrangements in beautiful baskets woven from bamboo, and several of these baskets hang from the rafters.
Daihan is one of the many traditional industries that thrives today in Ōmi.
place 1-1-37, Seribashi, Hikone, Shiga Prefecture