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Japanese Tofu Dishes: Tofu Made Tasty

By James Lau
March 24, 2022

One of the oldest foods in history, tofu has been constantly changed and redefined over Japan’s long culinary history. Today, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of unique Japanese tofu dishes, side dishes, and desserts that use this ingredient to its fullest potential.

A Quick Reminder…

Tofu is a processed food that is made by hardening boiled soy milk with a thickening agent, forming curds. Then, using force, they compress the curds into white blocks that vary in thickness and softness.

Thanks to its subtle taste, anyone can transform tofu into both sweet and savory dishes. Also, thanks to its various textures, it can be cooked in a variety of ways, from deep frying to boiling. And it’s not just used in vegetarian Japanese food; it often pairs very well with meat dishes too.

History of Tofu

Tofu is originally from China and was introduced to Japan. However, scholars often debate about the exact timing of when tofu was brought to Japan. One of the more popular theories is that it was brought over by Japanese envoys to the Tang Dynasty (681-907 AD) during the Nara period (710-794 AD). 

Other stories suggest that the famous Japanese Buddhist monk, Kuukai, who studied in China, brought the dish back to Japan. According to a Japanese document, Tofu was served as an offering at the Kasuga Shrine in Nara in 1183 and is often associated with Buddhist diets as a substitute for meat and fish. 

A supermarket section filled with Japanese tofu from many different brands and with many different types for different Japanese tofu dishes.
Japan takes its tofu very seriously, with plenty of options even in the smallest supermarkets. Image via Shutterstock

In 1782, the recipe book, Tofu Hyakuchin (literally “Tofu One Hundred Treasures”), was published and gained great popularity for its 100 recipes for preparing tofu. It even spawned two follow-up cookbooks!

By the Muromachi period (1333-1573), tofu had spread all over Japan and became a common food during the Edo period. The blocky, firm tofu that you see in most grocery stores are similar to the style that was popular during the Edo period.

Today, tofu is still a beloved staple of Japanese cuisine. It can be eaten as the main ingredient, served with seasoning and other ingredients. However, it can also be used to compliment other star ingredients. It is a common ingredient for soups, main dishes, or even a dessert.

Let’s take a look at some of the most popular Japanese tofu dishes in the country!

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Tofu as the Star

These Japanese tofu dishes are where tofu has its time in the limelight as the main ingredient and the crown jewel! Tofu reigns supreme in these dishes and shines brightly in all its glory!

Yudofu

Yudofu is a Japanese hot pot dish using silken tofu blocks, being one of the more traditional Japanese tofu dishes. The tofu blocks are simmered in water with kombu (kelp) placed underneath the blocks to give it a subtle flavor. The water should be kept from boiling to stop the tofu from breaking apart. 

When the tofu is ready, it’s transferred to a small serving bowl and a mix of soy sauce, dashi (a traditional Japanese soup stock), and mirin (Japanese cooking wine) is poured around the tofu. Katsuobushi (bonito flakes) and spring onions are then sprinkled over the tofu. 

Some restaurants choose to cook this dish at the customer’s table with a portable stove and a clay pot.

Agedashi Tofu

A plate with fried tofu, probably one of the most popular Japanese tofu dishes, on a white plate with a sauce poured on top and green onions as a topping.
Japanese fried tofu is a perfect vehicle for your favorite sauces, with plenty of Japanese TikTokers introducing their best sauces on this dish. Image via Shutterstock

Agedashi tofu is prepared by removing the excess water from a large tofu block, usually by compressing it, and cutting the tofu block into smaller blocks. Then, the blocks are dusted with potato starch and deep fried. The potato starch coating creates a light, crispy shell while the tofu remains soft inside. 

Once the tofu is fully cooked, it is transferred to a bowl where a sauce made of dashi, mirin, sugar, and soy sauce is poured over it before adding toppings like bonito flakes and green onions over it. This dish is often found in Japanese restaurants and is especially enjoyed along with alcohol.

Hiyayakko

Also known as cold tofu, hiyayakko tofu requires no cooking or heat at all! This is a cool, refreshing dish that is perfect for the summer heat. Simply take chilled tofu, cut it into smaller, bite-sized cubes, and garnish with your choice of toppings to enhance the umami (savory taste) of this dish. 

Some popular toppings include spring onions, ginger, seaweed, bonito flakes, sesame seeds, bean sprouts, and shiso, along with a sauce like soy sauce or ponzu (a citrus-based sauce) to drizzle on top.

Tofu Hamburg Steak

A plate with tofu hamburg steak, one of the popular Japanese tofu dishes, with bits of Japanese seaweed and a sweet sauce topping with a bit of green onion on top.
This Tofu Hamburg steak is made completely with tofu and bits of kelp, but others use tofu mixed with chicken or pork for some added heartiness. Image via Shutterstock

A healthier alternative to Japanese Hamburg steak, this version uses ground meat mixed with tofu, resulting in fewer calories, less grease, and a softer texture. Ground beef is usually the choice of meat, but pork and chicken are also acceptable. There are some recipes that only use tofu mixed with potato starch or flour. Like traditional Hamburg steaks, it goes well with a variety of sauces and toppings.

Tofu as the Co-Star

It might not be the lead actor anymore, but tofu is still essential to these meals. It just wouldn’t be the same without tofu.

Sukiyaki

A popular hot pot dish in Japan, sukiyaki is another dish that is perfect for the winter with its rich and hearty flavor. It is best enjoyed using a cast iron pot, although the recipe can vary based on the region. Simply heat up the pot at medium heat and add oil before searing the beef slices. Then, you just add your sauce, usually a mix of sugar, soy sauce, and Japanese sake (rice wine) once the beef is browned. 

Add in the rest of your ingredients and don’t forget the tofu! The tofu will absorb the broth and take on a flavor that will have you dreaming about it for days!

A cast iron pot full of sukiyaki, a Japanese dish featuring beef, vegetables, and tofu, boiling on a burner on a table with meat behind it.
Sukiyaki can be a bit heavy, which is why tofu is so important! It’s a bit of lightness and warmth that fits perfectly in a heavier dish. Image via Shutterstock

Miso Soup

The classic Japanese soup. Every family, restaurant, cook, chef, and grandmother will have their own recipe for this soup. The miso paste clouds up the soup and changes the flavor of the soup depending on the type of miso used. The dashi carries the miso paste and transforms it into a beautiful, traditional soup. 

This combo has been passed down from generation to generation. 

Above all, every miso soup requires ingredients that compliment the flavors of the dish, adding texture and mouthfeel. Tofu helps to enhance the dish, giving it a subtle flavor that is noticeable when absent.

Mabo Tofu

Although not technically a Japanese dish in origin, mabodofu (Japanese mapo tofu) became popular in Japan thanks to Chef Chen Kenmin, a Chinese-born Japanese chef. His son, Chen Kenichi, later became Iron Chef Chinese on the cult favorite television series, Iron Chef. Chen Kenmin is revered as the father of Sichuan cuisine in Japan. 

Today, mabodofu is quite different from its Sichuan counterpart. Chinese mapo tofu contains chilis and Sichuan peppercorn. The Japanese version uses Japanese ingredients, like miso, mirin, and sake, using spicy bean sauce as its only spicy element. This results in a milder dish that even children can enjoy. 

When mabodofu is served, the tofu glistens against the ruby color of the sauce.

Japanese mabodofu, a version of Chinese mapo tofu, in a bowl with a cube of tofu, the red sauce, and chili peppers on a spoon.
Japanese food isn’t usually spicy, so mabodofu isn’t as spicy as Sichuan mapo tofu. So if you love spice (like we do), you have to ask for extra chili peppers. Image via Shutterstock

Tofu as the Villain (Dessert)

Oh, you never thought that you could use tofu like this, did you? You thought it was boring and bland. Well, tofu is here to prove that it’s versatile, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

Tofu Pudding

For any tofu lover, there’s no skipping over this delicious dessert. Japanese tofu pudding only requires a few ingredients: silken tofu, soy milk, extract for flavor, a thickener like gelatin sheets or agar-agar, and a sweetener like honey or sugar. Since this easy tofu dish isn’t overly sweet, some cooks like to make a fruit sauce to add to the taste. The added color also makes the dish pop a little more!

Are there any Japanese tofu dishes that we missed? Have you tasted any of these yourself? Let us know in the comments below!

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