Homemade tofu recipe from the mountains of Nagano

My Japanese grandparents lived in an area with many Buddhist temples (where meat is not eaten) so they were spoiled for choice when it came to fresh tofu shops on their street. I remember those old fashioned shops – spartan, concrete floors and stainless steel vats of water holding the morning’s just-made tofu, and the a smiling old woman selling them, but I especially remember my grandmother’s breakfasts of hiyayyako or chilled, fresh tofu, simply dressed with soy sauce and grated ginger. I’ve been seeking out that flavour and texture again for a long time and decided the only way I would ever find it is if I could just learn to make tofu at home.

So I travelled to Chino, a two hour train ride from Tokyo, to the foothills of Nagano’s mountain ranges, to learn how to make fresh tofu with Kobayashi-san, who makes tofu for all the local schools and sells the rest through his tiny shop. You can read more about this wonderful experience on my newsletter.

Fresh homemade tofu — what you need

Note that you will need some specific tools to make tofu: a candy thermometer, cheesecloth, a wooden tofu mould (about 18×18 cm) which has removable sides and holes in the bottom (something along the lines of this one), or a makeshift equivalent (a strainer could do the job but you will have a round tofu instead of a block), even a cheese mould could do the job. If you have a precision scale, great, as measuring the nigari can be tricky even with a regular digital scale and a teaspoon is approximate but because the form of the nigari salt can be irregular it isn’t very precise – note if you add too much you will have a firmer tofu. Nigari can be found in health food shops or specialty shops.

Fresh homemade tofu
A recipe from my latest cookbook Gohan: Everyday Japanese Cooking

You need to begin a day ahead to soak the beans. In preparation for making tofu, have ready a fine-meshed strainer, a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, a spatula or wooden spoon and a tofu mould (like this wooden one, or simply put a strainer set over a bowl), which should be prepared with a damp cheesecloth laid carefully over it.

Makes 6 servings (500 grams) tofu

  • 400 grams dried yellow soy beans
  • 2 litres of spring or mineral water, if possible
  • 3 grams nigari salt (about 1 teaspoon) or 30 ml liquid nigari

Rinse the soy beans and place in a large bowl with plenty of water to soak for a day. Continue topping up with water if you notice there is not enough to cover them.

Drain the soy beans and now measure out 2 litres (8 cups) fresh water – consider using mineral water for the smoothest result. Blend the soybeans with the water until very creamy – you may need to do this in two batches. Pour the puree into a large, heavy bottomed saucepan and heat over medium heat. You will need to stir slowly as it heats to a simmer to make sure there is nothing getting stuck or burnt on the bottom of the pot. Skim off the froth on the top of the puree. Continue cooking and stirring until you have a consistency like a runny polenta, about 15 minutes.

Now you will need to separate the soy milk from the pulp with a cheesecloth-lined strainer or just a fine-meshed strainer, over a pot. Push as much liquid as you can from the mixture – the pulp, known as okara can be set aside and used in a warm salad (or doughnuts!).

Check the temperature of the soy milk, it should be between 75ºC and 80ºC and if it is cooler than this, heat it back up gently. If it is too cool, it won’t set and if it is too hot it will be too hard, so checking with a thermometer is best.

In the meantime, prepare the nigari solution. Often nigari comes as a clumpy, wet salt, or you may also be able to find it in liquid form. As a salt, it should be dissolved into some water. It isn’t so important how much water you add – the salt doesn’t interact with the water, only with the soy milk, the water will be pressed out of the tofu later. But for this amount, about 2 tablespoons of water should be enough.

When the soy milk is the right temperature, add the nigari and slowly, briefly stir through the nigari. Cover and let the soy milk sit for 3-5 minutes, then slowly stir with a spatula to the bottom of the pan. You should see the curds, or oboro now, be careful not to break them up. Cover and let sit a further 3-5 minutes.

Note, during this time waiting for the oboro to form, the soy milk should be kept warm, ideally it should still be at the same temperature so be mindful of this when you choose the pan and what the temperature is of the room; if it is cold, for example, the temperature can drop in the pan too and the oboro may not form well. But tofu-making is forgiving, you can simply heat the pan again if this has happened. You can even add a bit more nigari if you suspect that you didn’t add enough the first time. Just keep in mind that too much heat or too much nigari will result in firmer, harder tofu, which you should try to find a balance for – ideally this homemade tofu should be a slightly firm tofu but with a soft, fluffy texture. What you are looking for after the second rest is for plenty of oboro and the liquid around it (yu) should now be turning transparent rather than opaque. If it hasn’t yet become transparent, give it a gentle swirl, then put the lid back on and wait a further 10 minutes, then check again.

Now you can carefully scoop the oboro with a slotted spoon or similar into the cheesecloth-lined tofu mould. Fold the cheesecloth carefully and neatly back over the top of the tofu so it is fully enclosed, then with the wooden top of the frame (or an equivalent if using a makeshift mould, a plate for example), press firmly and hold for a minute or so to remove most of the excess liquid. You can keep pressing with your own weight for several more minutes or you can place a weight on the top of the tofu – 2 tins of tomatoes for example would be ideal – for about 10 minutes. The harder and longer you press, the firmer the tofu. So adjust as you wish.

Remove the frame and place the whole block of tofu in a deep container filled with cool water and unwrap the cheesecloth gently. You can now slice the tofu into serving-portion blocks or if you used a sieve and have an odd-shaped piece, you can cut it into smaller cubes – use a sharp knife and a slicing motion rather than pushing down onto the tofu for the best cut. Enjoy it immediately or store the tofu in this water in an airtight container in the fridge for 3-5 days. Tofu also freezes well.

How I like to eat tofu (Chilled tofu or Hiyayyako)

Fresh tofu like this needs only a few toppings — my favourites are a bit of grated ginger, some finely sliced green onion (or myoga or shiso if you can get these!), katsuobushi flakes, toasted sesame seeds or some finely sliced cucumber, and finally a splash of soy sauce over it all.

Excerpt from my latest cookbook, Gohan: Everyday Japanese Cooking (Smith Street Books, September 2023), where the full Hiyayyako recipe actually has 5 different topping suggestions!



  1. Hello,, I can hardly wait to get a copy of Gohan!
    For the past 30 years, my wife and I have been making our own tofu,
    miso, natto, umeboshi, shoyu, takuan, moroni pickles, yuba, dried daikon, tekka, and more.
    Dried tofu is one food I have not been successful in making at home.
    It is one of my favorite Japanese foods! Are there any instructions available
    for making it at home? I would be so happy to be able to make it successfully.

    Thank you very much.


    David Briscoe

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