How Living in Japan Changed My Feelings About Tofu

Before you tofu-haters ignore this post, first let me tell you that I used to be a tofu-hater myself. Well maybe not a hater, but tofu was pretty low on the list of my favorite protein choices.

But then I lived in Japan.

Japan is one of the most meat loving places I’ve been to in a long time. Fish and meat are MAJOR staples of the Japanese diet. They eat fish and meat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and don’t know what to do with foreigners who don’t eat meat. Vegans are basically unheard of. There are about 5 vegan restaurants in most major cities, and it took me weeks to find beans and other plant proteins in grocery stores. But that’s a story for another day.

The point is, despite their meat obsessions, the Japanese LOVE tofu. It’s a food with a long tradition and deep cultural pride. And it made me realize that they have a totally different view of this odd textured, seemingly bland tasting product.

Here’s a photo of my husband in our local tofu shop in Kyoto (which has been in business for over 200 years), and the sweet owner who we affectionately refer to as “Tofu san.”

The Japanese don’t view tofu as a meat substitute like Americans do. The best tofu stores have lines around the block, and nobody in those lines are vegans or vegetarians. Tofu is often served alongside fish and miso soup in the traditional Japanese meal. We even once saw a dish on a menu called “steak with tofu.” 

There are a million kinds of tofu and tofu-related products, and everybody loves them, because the Japanese just love soy beans and all their derivatives. (Sidenote: the same is true about soymilk, soy ice cream also contains dairy because it’s not trying to be a milk alternative, they just love their soymilk). 

A typical grocery store tofu section in Japan, so many different kinds!

I’m here to tell you that the Japanese have freaking mastered the soy bean in all of its forms. It makes me feel kind of sad and ashamed about all the ways that we westerners have ruined and misinterpreted such a delicacy. 

What strikes me the most is the simplicity of tofu dishes in Japan. People simply put a block of soft fresh tofu in a bowl of hot water and garnish it with green onions, ginger, and soy sauce. That’s it. They call it yudofu which literally means tofu and hot water. And for some reason, it’s delicious. The Japanese don’t try to make tofu anything other than what it is. They appreciate it as its own thing. 

Yudofu (literally “tofu in hot water”)

Part of the issue is also that tofu in Japan is better than tofu here. Their tofu is delicate, soft, fresh, and worth eating by itself. Really firm, highly processed, packaged tofu in the western world just doesn’t compare. If you have access to an Asian foods store, I highly recommend checking out their tofu section to see if they’ve got the good stuff.

Having experienced the tofu culture of Japan, it feels seriously tragic to me to go back to the western mindset of tofu as an eye-roll inducing, tasteless, squishy block that vegans are pretending is a good substitute for meat. Divorce those associations from your mind right now, because they are preventing you from appreciating tofu as it’s meant to be enjoyed. 

Ok, tofu rant over. That said, if you do enjoy tofu as a meat substitute, go for it! I enjoy a good tofu stir fry too. I just want you all to know that tofu can be so much more.

So, before you laugh tofu off as a vegan delusion, why not give some of these simple, delicious, and traditional recipes a try?

My Top 10 Favorite Things To Do With Tofu

Mostly from Nami at Just One Cookbook who is essentially my blogger hero who singlehandedly taught me to feed myself while in Japan

Yudofu (Tofu in Hot Water w/ Simple Flavorings)

This was one of our our go-to weeknight dinner sides, yummy and quick.

Recipe Here from Just One Cookbook

Agedashi Tofu (Deep Fried Tofu)

This was our restaurant go-to in Japan (minus the bonito flakes). It’s so delicious, and mysterious how something so simple can be so good.

Recipe Here from Just One Cookbook

Miso Soup

A classic and easy side dish. It’s essential to make your own dashi (broth) for good miso soup, but it’s as simple as putting some dried mushrooms and kelp in a container of water to store in the fridge.

Recipe Here from Just One Cookbook

Simple Teriyaki Tofu 

We probably made this weekly while living in Japan. So yummy and easy.

Recipe Here from Just One Cookbook

Tofu & Soymilk Hot Pot (Nabe)  

Hot Pots are made for gathering around together. Very versatile, easy, great for using up veggie odds and ends, and so much fun!

Recipe Here from Just One Cookbook

Oboro Tofu (Silken Tofu Curds)

This is seriously one of my favorite things and I don’t really understand why. It’s so freaking simple. It’s actually a 2 minute meal. (Note: I use storebought Oboro Tofu (which means cloudy or hazy in Japanese) and don’t make my own curds, but it looks easy and I’d love to try it someday!)

Recipe Here from Snixy Kitchen

Ok, now onto the more western-style preparations, which are great too!

Simple Stir Fry w/ Baked Tofu

Recipe Here from Katie’s Conscious Kitchen

Tofu Fried Rice

Recipe Here from Katie’s Conscious Kitchen

Tofu Breakfast Scramble w/ Chipotle Lime Sauce

I thought tofu scrambles were stupid until I discovered this easy method (and this magical sauce)

Recipe Here from Katie’s Conscious Kitchen

Thai Curry w/ Tofu

(Pro Tip: I just buy tofu pre-fried from the Asian section of my grocery store and cut it into cubes before throwing it directly into the curry)

Recipe Here from A Spicy Perspective

What is YOUR favorite way to prepare tofu? 

Share in the comments! 💬

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  1. Sharon Titus Roberts-Osojnak

    I bought tofu several weeks or months ago thinking I would learn to eat it. Now it is way past the pull date. Can I still eat it? Truthfully, these are beautiful pictures, but don’t make me want to eat tofu. I hope you can convince me otherwise. I WANT to like it. (sigh)

    • Hmmm, maybe it’s just not for you Sharon! It’s ok to just not like things! 🙂 I wouldn’t eat that old tofu if I were you.

  2. Are you still in Kyoto? We love that city, and hopefully when traveling is available again, we will be returning. I found several vegan restaurants while there. was one of my favorites but the secret was to order the Japanese special, which wasn’t on the menu. Would love to hear more thoughts of eating places in one of my most loved cities.

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  5. Valerie

    Your recipes look delicious and I’m going to give them a try.
    What was Japan like? I’m from the Uk and would love to take a holiday there, I’ve heard it’s incredibly expensive, did you find that to be true?

    • Katie Gates

      Thanks Valerie! I didn’t find it particularly expensive, comparable to the UK.

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