My Favorite Japanese Meal: Yudofu, or 'Hot Water Tofu'

Yudofu (hot water tofu) being spooned out of a bowl.
Blocks of freshly made silken tofu come served in a heavy aluminum pot filled with hot water seasoned with a strip of konbu.

J. Kenji López-Alt

I'm a firm believer that anybody who claims they don't like tofu simply hasn't ever had good tofu. Don't worry, you're not to blame. Great, fresh-made tofu is hard enough to find on its own, and the various manipulations, mutilations, and general misuses inflicted upon sub-par tofu have earned it a near-permanent place in most carnivorous minds as a meat-substitute not worth looking at, much less giving it the time of day on your dinner plate.

But to believe that all tofu is necessarily of this same ilk is to do a huge disservice to one of the greatest foods in the world. Tofu's biggest problem is that it gets compared to meat too frequently. As a stand-in for pork, beef, chicken, or the flesh of any other land or sea creature, it's never going to succeed. The first thing to do if you want to enjoy tofu: get it out of your head that it's a meat substitute and instead enjoy it as an ancient, storied ingredient unto itself.

I mean, if we really must compare it to meat, we can certainly do that. How about the texture of freshly-made silken tofu, as smooth and custardy as the most delicate sea urchin? Or the flavor or tofu made with unpasteurized soy milk, so savory yet so delicately sweet that it'd make any scallop feel like its turf is being invaded?

There are a number of dishes in the world-wide pantheon of tofu greats. There's soondubu jjigae, the fiery and fortifying Korean stew of tofu and chili paste. Or one of my favorite dishes of all time, mapo dofu, the Sichuan dish that combines mouth-numbing sichuan peppercorns, soft silken tofu, a touch of beef, and a generous pour of roasted chili oil.

But the best way to appreciate the beauty and delicacy of perfectly-made fresh tofu? For that, you have to go right to the source. Kyoto, Japan, is the epicenter of Japanese-style shojin-ryori, the Buddhist monk cuisine that eschews all animal products. The greatness of tofu in the shops near Kyoto is not in any fancy acts of cookery or wild seasoning. It's in the quality of the tofu itself. Smooth and custardy with an unparalleled clean flavor, yudofu is my favorite way to eat tofu. Literally translating to "hot water tofu," that's essentially all there is to it. Tofu warmed up in a bowl of hot water lightly seasoned with a strip of kombu, and served with a set of simple condiments and side dishes mostly made from tofu and related products.

There aren't many meals I can think of that have such a calming, relaxed feel to them, nearly forcing you to contemplate the beauty of simplicity and attention to perfect technique and production.

Take a look at a typical yudofu meal >>