Apr 7, 2015

Hey Tofu Haters! Japanese Toppings To Add Taste!

Hey Tofu Haters! Japanese Toppings To Add Taste! photo

Better begin by saying that this writer was one of said haters. For a long time, tofu (とうふ) was, for me, anti-food. Its bland, bordering on soporific, taste was about as inspiring as cardboard and its putrid texture made me wish it was.

Annoyingly though, tofu is very healthy, in the kind of way that recounts that oft-asked childhood perplexity,  “Why is the food that's good for you so boring?”. For this writer it’s all about the protein. Tofu packs a solid punch of the stuff. It was recommended as way of beefing up a little, on the cheap. For less than 100 yen I'd get three tubs and wolf them down straight like over-sized pots of yogurt. Japanese colleagues balked at such barbarism and insisted I get some toppings on there.

So we've compiled a list of what the Japanese like on their tofu, with an important caveat; despite the myriad ways to prepare and serve tofu, what we're interested in here is minimum time, preparation, and cost. Three tubs, under 100 yen, toppings on, and eat. The Japanese equivalent of boiling an egg, if you will.  The tofu used here is the soft variety (絹/kinu).

Hey Tofu Haters! Japanese Toppings To Add Taste! photo

The Classics

かつおぶし (鰹節) and ネギ (Katsuobushi and Negi - picture 1)

A pinch of katsuobushi (aka dried bonito flakes) gives a much needed salty, smoky hue to your tofu.  Add some color with a sprinkle of chopped negi (scallion).

ショウガ (生姜) and ネギ (Syouga and Negi - picture 2)

We liked this one a great deal.  The fiery ginger (ショウガ) really injected a dose of life into the tofu, with the chopped negi on hand to make sure things didn’t get out of control.  The ginger you want is the prepared kind that comes in a tube, like toothpaste!  Clean and easy!  

ミョウガ (名荷) and ネギ (Myouga and Negi - picture 3)

Myouga, to the layman, is Japanese ginger (although it’s native to China and Korea as well). Red/pink/purple in color it has the look of something from a Sci-Fi movie, that could kill you. It can’t though, and is actually rather tasty.  It’s not as distracting as the regular ginger. Chop some up with your negi and sprinkle on top.

Hey Tofu Haters! Japanese Toppings To Add Taste! photo

For Something Sharper

レモン and しょうゆ (醤油)  (Lemon and Soy Sauce - picture 4)

For ultra minimum preparation, the lemon juice you can squirt from plastic lemon-shaped containers will do.  We like the way a slice of lemon looks on the tofu, though.  Points for presentation!  

うめぼし(梅干し) and シソ  (Pickled Plum and Shiso - picture 6)

Perhaps pickled plum is bit of a misnomer.   Umeboshi appears more as a plum/apricot hybrid that looks like it dropped off the tree some time ago and would be better used to make compost!  Such names also sound rather sweet.  However, umeboshi is anything but. This writer is consistently floored by the one-two punch of saltiness and bitterness. Anyway, chop some up and have it with your tofu.  You never know, they might just cancel each other out.

For Something … Weird!

ケチャップ, オリーブ油 and シソ  (Ketchup, Olive Oil and Shiso - picture 5)

Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but let’s deal with the shiso first of all.  Shiso (once translated as ‘beefsteak plant’), is a herb used across Asia coming from the mint family. Fine!  As for the ketchup and olive oil, well, we’re not making it up.  A few squirts of ketchup, a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of chopped shiso, and away you go.  It’s supposed to end up tasting of cheese.  It doesn’t, but it’s actually rather nice.

Still Too Much Preparation?

If the above are beyond your culinary skills, or indeed, your motivation, then let’s get really basic.

ポン酢醤油 (Ponzu shouyu)

Ponzu is a citrus-based sauce which, when combined with shouyu, is often used to dress meats or act as a dip.  You can put some on your tofu, too.  It’s essentially an easier version of the Lemon and Soy Sauce above.

Shoyu (醤油)  Soy Sauce

The ever reliable soy sauce.  Often added to some of the aforementioned Classics.

Shio (塩)  (Salt)

This is never going to win any awards for originality, but it might just be enough to make tofu palatable for those who are having difficulty.  Maybe spend a little more money than usual on the salt though.

If you’ve got any suggestions for our readers, don’t hesitate to comment below, no matter how outrageous!



Traveler, surfer, and scribe. Based in Tokyo for six years.