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The Mostly Unverifiable History of Tofu Misozuke

Last year our friend from Wandering Spoon told us about the second annual Northern California Soy and Tofu Fest. A gathering of Bay Area tofu lovers all in one place? Sign us up!

After signing up, and telling the festival organizers about tofu misozuke, we were asked if we wanted to make a short presentation as part of the educational program. I jumped at the opportunity to go on and on. Below is most of my presentation on the ancient and mostly unverifiable history of tofu misozuke.

Tofu Misozuke Pre-History

Soybean cultivation and tofu production both originated from China and their invention are traditionally attributed to legendary characters. Emperor Shennong invented agriculture (and medicine) and domesticated soybeans along with all other important crops about 5000 years ago. Tofu was said to have been invented in the 2nd century BC by Prince Liu An, who is also credited with inventing t’ai chi and a tempered 12 tone musical scale, among many other things. He was said to have grown younger and younger as he ate more tofu and eventually sprouted wings, ascended into heaven, and became the patron god of tofu. [Not verifiable.]

Soybeans, tofu, and fermented soybean products probably came to Japan along with Buddhist missionaries in the 6th century. But in Japan there was already something called ‘Jomon miso’ made from salted, fermented grains and/or fish. Jomon refers to the Japanese Neolithic era. So did the Japanese adapt the techniques for making Jomon miso to use soybeans as a new substrate, or did soybean based miso also come from China? There are fermented soybean pastes in Chinese cooking, too, but it never achieved the ubiquity that miso does. And miso, so central to Japanese cuisine, has properties that made tofu misozuke possible, and made it a distinct class of preserved tofu. I’ll get back to that on a future post about the biochemistry behind tofu misozuke.

The oldest surviving mention of tofu in Japanese occurred in the diary of a Buddhist monk in Nara, dated 1183. Nara was the landing spot of Buddhist missionaries all those centuries ago and is still the center of Japanese Buddhism today. The monk’s diary makes for a convenient segue into:

The Genpei War

In 1180, 3 years before the journal entry, many temples, statues, and sacred texts in Nara were burned down by Taira Kiyomori, head of the powerful, dominant Taira or Heike clan, and his troops. For this evil deed, his clan was doomed and Taira Kiyomori himself was to die from a fever so hot that water poured on him burst in to flame. [Not verifiable, but Taira’s pursuit by ghosts/descent into madness is well illustrated below.]

Taira no Kiyomori’s Spectral Vision by Utagawa Hiroshige (ca. 1845) – Taira no Kiyomori looks over his garden which is ominously transformed into visions of skulls and skeletons.

Taira Kiyomori died in 1181, the civil war between the Heike Clan and the Minamoto or Genji clan raged on for another 4 years, finally ending in 1185 at the naval battle of Dannoura, in the narrow strip of sea separating the main Japanese island of Honshu and the southwestern island of Kyushu. Heike forces were utterly destroyed, the Imperial family and many Heike warriors committed suicide by jumping into the sea.

The Sea Bed at Daimotsu Bay by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1851) – Under the sea with the ghosts of Heike clan general Taira no Tomomori (jumped into the water with an anchor) and others. Also pictured are the famous Heike crabs bearing the faces and souls of Heike warriors; not to be steamed and eaten.

Ghosts stories, legends and epics inspired by the war, and that last battle in particular became a prominent part of Japanese culture, inspiring artists, musicians, and writers for centuries to come. The Tale of the Heike, for instance, is an epic poem and biwa lute piece that dates back to the 13th century and is part of Japan’s musical canon. I first learned about all this when I was captivated by a vignette from the movie Kwaidan invoking ghosts from the battle Dannoura.

From Kwaidan by Masaki Kobayashi (dir., 1964) – Hoichi, the virtuoso reciter of Tales of the Heike, has to be protected from ghosts who wanted to hear again of their last days.

But survivors of that battle were important too. The remnants of the Heike clans fled into the mountains and backwaters of Kyushu on the other side of the strait and had to adapt to the remote conditions there. They were no longer near Kyoto or Nara, the centers of early tofu productions. In order to make rare goods last longer, the Heike survivors were credited with having invented tofu misozuke.

Not verifiable, of course, but my world is better with that story. Imagine it! The sequel to the epic Tales of the Heike is the invention of tofu misozuke! Elizabeth Andoh (more below) pointed out to us that misozuke is a widely practiced technique and tofu misozuke is not isolated to Kyushu. Nonetheless we see here that the people of Kyushu are especially attached to the dish and proud of its local origins.

Special thanks have to go to the wonderful Elizabeth Andoh. When the opportunity to speak about tofu misozuke came up, I was terrified of spreading misinformation and misrepresenting some parts of the wild, wonderful world of Japanese cuisine. I reached out to Elizabeth and she graciously agreed to spend time answering my questions. Elizabeth Andoh has been teaching Japanese cuisine for more than 4 decades and has written many books along the way. Her last three books – Washoku, on Japanese homecooking; Kansha, on Japanese vegan and vegetarian cuisine; and Kibo, a fundraiser for the tsunami recovery efforts – are accompanied by websites regularly updated with new lessons. Oh, and her Washoku book contained one of the few English recipes for tofu misozuke. With so much on her plate (ahem), we were flabbergasted and touched when she fit us into her busy schedule. She eventually spent over an hour with Oanh and me, bombarding us with so much information that we’re still not done digesting it all. Clearly, any misinformation left on my presentation and on this post was all my own fault. Also, her challenge to our claim of a Kyushu – tofu misozuke connection led to our discovery of the neat little story told above.