NAMAFU is a traditional Japanese delicacy based on highly refined wheat gluten that is combined with short-grained mochi rice flour, then steamed.
By itself it has no distinct flavor, but possesses a near-magical ability to take on the character of the foods and ingredients that typically surround it, such as soy sauce, sansho pepper, miso, sesame seeds, or stock made from kelp or dried bonito. It’s a culinary chameleon whose presence is noted by its unique texture and the way it brings together, at the deepest level, the subtle flavors that are key to Japanese cooking. NAMAFU represents a fundamental aesthetic in traditional Japanese cooking, that no single flavor should take center stage, but all together should form a complex, nuanced wave that rouses and satisfies the senses. NAMAFU is composed of some 60 percent water, and Kyoto’s NAMAFU is renowned as the world’s best for the same reason that Kyoto’s incredible moss gardens are regarded with awe. The city was built upon a massive water table fed by the surrounding mountains, supplying it with plentiful wells that produce an abundance of pure, sweet, life-sustaining water.
There are apocryphal stories of NAMAFU’s origin in China, where it was commonly served deep-fried, but we know for certain that it came to Japan during the 14th century. Japanese monks, restricted by their practice from consuming meat, found in the Chinese fu a method to derive healthful protein in a concentrated form. As a result it soon became associated with the Tea Ceremony, and thus with the practice of Zen. But in modern times it moved away from its spiritual underpinnings to become a staple of the fare served in Kyoto’s ryotei, the high-end Kyoto dining establishments that carry on the age-old traditions of Japanese cuisine. UNESCO regards traditional Japanese cooking as a landmark of World Cultural Heritage, and NAMAFU is a fundamental part of that heritage.
With the sea vegetable aonori, mugwort, or millet folded in, NAMAFU is molded into familiar forms, like autumnal maple leaves or the iconic Japanese gingko. Natural colors impart a festive quality and bestow on dishes the look and feel of seasonality. These shapes and beautiful colors are also characteristic of Kyoto NAMAFU, and set it apart. It can be prepared in a tremendous variety of ways, from broiling beneath a marinade of miso sauce, stewing with a mix of vegetables and meats, to deep-frying and steeping in dashi. It’s incredibly versatile and even makes a wonderful confection, with sweetened azuki beans tucked inside a NAMAFU casing, forming a sort of dessert dumpling. But even as dessert, one of the best things about NAMAFU is that it’s a healthy food – low in calories, high in system-friendly protein, and containing less than 2% fat and cholesterol.