So you're kicking back, eating last night's leftover caterpillar roll. To keep it real, you pop open a package of Kikkoman miso soup because, you know, Japanese have miso soup with, like, everything, right? So you drop that freeze-dried miso-like powder into your not quite washed coffee cup. Next comes the dashi pellets, looking like some kind of miniature rabbit pellets. That wakame seaweed stuff then falls out then those little white discs. Now, you think to yourself what the hell are those? Bread? Crackers? Alien mind implant technology? No, it's fu.
Fu is in no way related to tofu, kung fu or even fu man chu for that matter (though there is a confection called Fu-manjū (麸まんじゅう) which is made from it). Fu is one of several purely native Japanese foods and literally, by its kanji, dried wheat gluten. That's right, wheat gluten, the tainted version of which was infesting our pet foods not more than just a month ago. For those who were not familiar with wheat gluten before this incident occurred, let me explain a little bit about its history.
Wheat gluten is essentially hard wheat flour dough which has been kneaded and the starch washed from it. From that point, the gluten can be dried (as fu is), steamed, baked, grilled, you name it. Asian countries, for centuries, have been using gluten as a sort of staple as a substitute for meat; Buddhist monks in particular use it for this purpose. For an example of gluten served this way, head down to your local Chinatown and look for canned food enigmatically labelled "vegetarian duck" or "mock lobster". That's gluten which has been cooked and prepared with sauces and/or oil in some way to simulate animal meat. Note the word simulate. In any case, gluten is relatively high in protein and has zero fat making it an ideal substitute.
In Japan, the dried and unflavored gluten fu is less of a staple in the modern era though it does have its history. Its presence as a protein source dates as far back as the Muromachi Era some 700 years ago but, no doubt, due to its history in Asia it was around for far longer than that.
So what exactly can we do with fu? Well, fu in its plain dry state has no flavor and can be added into almost any dish to absorb its flavors, a property it shares with tofu. When I was in Japan, an ex and I were watching a TV documentary about fu and they recommended putting fu in hamburger in place of bread crumbs as a way of both bonding the meat and retaining moisture. That was one of the juiciest hamburgers I had ever eaten. A common way of preparing fu is to, before drying it, combine it with glutinous rice (mochi rice) and boil it. Then skewer it on a stick and put a little sweet miso on it then you have nama fu. Fans of miso oden might recognize this.
Fu has fairly recently experienced a renaissance in Japan owing to its nutritional value and ease of use. A quick search, in fact, yielded a site which has lots of information about fu as well as a section dedicated to recipes. Sadly, though, I was not able to find a site in which you can buy it online. All the more reason to get down to your local Japanese supermarket and buy some for yourself (and get yourself some real miso while you're at it too!).