At your local supermarket in Japan, tofu is divided up into two main categories, called もめん (momen) and きぬ (kinu). In Western grocery stores, the same distinction is made as "hard" tofu and "soft" tofu, although the actual difference goes a little beyond simple firmness.

Today we'll learn a bit about what sets もめん and きぬ apart!

Which is Which?
First off, to remember which is which, it's helpful to keep in mind the literal meanings of the names. もめん means "cotton," and きぬ means "silk." Momen is the harder variety of tofu, just as cotton is a rougher cloth, and kinu is softer and has a smooth-as-silk taste.

While the food is often packaged with a hiragana label, the kanji sometimes show up. 木綿 is momen and 絹 is kinu. Furthermore, kinu is sometimes also called 絹ごし, kinu goshi.

Making momen and kinu
In fact, in the tofu production process, a cotton cloth is actually used to create momen tofu. A soy milk mixture is poured into a container and left to coagulate. At this point, the tofu is in a soft, watery state, ready to be packaged and sold as kinu tofu. (In other words, no silk cloth is actually used to make the "silk" tofu.) Momen tofu, however, requires an additional step, in which a cotton cloth is spread over the tofu and pressure is applied to strain out water. This process creates the firmer momen product.

Health Benefits
Tofu is widely touted as a great health food. Neither momen nor kinu have any cholesterol. Because of the higher water content, kinu has fewer calories per serving, and they are both good sources of protein, calcium, and potassium, though the values of each nutrient vary a little between the two. Shejapan.com has a nice comparison chart.

Cooking Differences
The softer, more watery kinu will quickly lose all its water along with its shape when stirred in a pot over heat. Dishes involving a lot of mixing or even just folding with a spatula can result in a white, formless mess of tofu. On the other hand, this means that kinu will mix in quite well when used to make a sauce. But in general kinu is preferred in dishes calling for raw tofu or tofu added in final stages of preparation, such as diced cubes added to a bowl of miso soup.

Momen, having some of its water removed already, is sturdier and better withstands frying and stirring. This makes momen more suitable for stir-fry dishes and Japanese standbys like nabe and sukiyaki.

The different uses are hardly cut and dry, though. Some people prefer mabo dofu with kinu instead of momen, for example, and agedashi is done with either momen or kinu, depending on who you ask.

So, in conclusion, it's really up to you. Personally, I almost never buy kinu, probably because most of my cooking involves rigorous mixing on a stovetop. However, even in soup and salads I find that I prefer the rougher consistency of momen tofu to the almost pudding-like consistency of kinu. If you haven't already, try them both! Like me, you may find that one just suits your palate more than the other.

A final great point about tofu in Japan is how incredibly cheap it is. An inexpensive brand at your local supermarket will set you back just 50 to 90 yen for a 400 gram pack!

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