NIKKO, Sept 3 — One of our favourite parts of visiting Japan is that every region, prefecture or city has its own special cuisine.
Local delicacies are often influenced by the bounty of the land, river or sea.
In the case of Nikko — a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its historical shrines and temples — picturesque mountains, lakes and waterfalls provide pristine spring water for making yuba or soy skin.
The city, which is located three hours by road north of Tokyo, is considered a yuba haven for gourmands.
This smooth, slightly rubbery delicacy is made from skimming the surface of boiled soy milk.
Unlike tofu, which has added coagulants to create the firm blocks, yuba is pure soy goodness.
The origins of the name yuba are still debated today. One school prefers the obvious explanation: since it’s made from the surface of soy milk, yuba comes from uha, the Japanese word for “surface.”
Another, more humorous, if not particularly politically correct, is that it comes from uba, which means “old woman” in Japanese — a nod to the texture of yuba being similar that to wrinkled skin.
Wherever the name came from, what we know for sure is that yuba is delicious and can be enjoyed in many forms.
While yuba is usually sold fresh (nama yuba), dried (kanso yuba) or frozen, it can come in many shapes: rolled, flat as a sheet or even tied in knots.
During the day, yuba is best enjoyed with noodles — be it udon (chewy, thick wheat noodles) or soba (thinner buckwheat noodles).
There is usually an assortment of yuba toppings for these noodles: yuba-wrapped soft tofu, deep-fried rolls of yuba and even osmund fern leaves (known as zenmai in Japanese) encased in yuba. The contrast of textures is beguiling — especially when we realise it’s all soy skin!
Udon or soba is also commonly served with tempura, a popular topping for noodles in hot soup in Japan. In Nikko, however, besides the usual ebi tempura (prawn) and yasai no tempura (vegetables), you can also enjoy yuba tempura. Often filled with some mild shichimi tougarashi (mixed spice), we love how the soy skin gets an extra layer of texture, crunchy yet light.
Yuba isn’t only made in Nikko, of course. We’ve had yuba in Kyoto too, the other city famous for its soy products. However, Kyoto-style yuba consists of a single strip while the Nikko version has two strips so you get more texture or “mouth feel” when you bite into it. Twice as thick, and Nikko residents would argue, twice as tasty.
Which is not to say Nikko hasn’t taken a leaf out of their arguably more illustrious cousin’s rulebook. Kyoto is famed for kaiseki ryori, a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner that prizes refinement and hospitality.
While Kyoto may be the birthplace of kaiseki, Nikko has gone one step further and created yuba kaiseki, which as you might have guessed, means there’s yuba in every single course!
To begin, one popular appetiser we enjoy comprises cold strands of harusame (cellophane noodles made of mung bean flour), tossed with shredded yuba and warabi (bracken fronds).
Some restaurants offer a more ornate platter of bite-sized morsels called zensai. There could be tamagoyaki (rolled omelette) layered with yuba or macerated chestnuts fried with a thin layer of yuba before being chilled.
The idea here is to present us with tiny treats, crafted with much care to look as beautiful as possible, to prepare our palate and imagination for the courses to come.
Perhaps the most unexpected is the pairing of nama yuba with sashimi: How could raw fish and sheets of fresh soy work together? Yet they do, most marvellously, a tantalising contrast of firm flesh against slippery skin. (The nugget of wasabi is almost an afterthought.)
No kaiseki dinner is complete without a futamono or soup course. In Nikko, dobin-mushi is often featured as the soup in a teapot can showcase local Nikko maitake mushrooms alongside the more conventional shiitake. Strands of yuba makes it hard not to noisily slurp the soup when one should sip the broth politely!
Course after course, the versatility of soy skin is demonstrated: from agemaki yuba (stewed yuba with steamed vegetables) to yakimono yuba (grilled fish such as salmon with yuba melted on top like “cheese”). There are lightly battered fritters of kanso yuba and bouncy tsumire (fish paste) served with nama yuba and a savoury, gelatinous gravy.
The rice course (gohan) — always made with local Nikko Jiyou Koshihikari rice — is topped with sheets of yuba. At some restaurants, even the dessert (mizumono) has yuba incorporated into it. Matcha yuba ice cream, anyone?
Where yuba is concerned, the possibilities are endless. The rewards for our jaded tastebuds are immense. In the words of Fred Flintstone (if he spoke a smidgen of Japanese, that is): Yuba-dabba-doo!
Some popular yuba restaurants in Nikko:
Ranburu Restaurant (yuba udon and soba)
12-3 Matsubaracho, Nikko, Tochigi, Japan
Open daily 11am-3pm and 6pm-8pm
Uoyou Restaurant (yuba udon and soba)
593 Gokoumachi, Nikko-shi, Tochigi
Open daily 11am-3pm and 5pm-7pm
Phone : +81-288-54-0333
Kinugawa Kanaya Hotel Dining Room (yuba kaiseki)
1394 Kinugawa Onsen Ohara, Nikko, Tochigi, Japan
Open daily 9am-8pm
Fudan Kaiseki Nagomi Chaya (yuba kaiseki)
1016 Kamihatsuishimachi, Nikko, Tochigi, Japan
Open daily 11:30am-4pm