As my colleague Alison Griswold noted Tuesday, McDonald’s Japan has introduced a new product: tofu nuggets. In the wake of the scandalous revelation that a Chinese supplier has been selling McDonald’s expired meat, it’s tempting to see Tofu Shinjo Nuggets as the fast food chain’s attempt to distance itself from animal products until the tempest dies down. The Christian Science Monitor’s headline about the tofu nuggets suggested just that: “Tofu McNuggets? McDonald’s Japan goes vegetarian amid expired meat scare.”
But as it turns out, the tofu nuggets aren’t vegetarian—they contain minced fish along with tofu and vegetables. They are, however, a great idea, expired meat scandal or no expired meat scandal, and one that McDonald’s should import to its home country.
In the West, tofu has gotten a bad rap as a pallid, unconvincing meat substitute. As imitation meat, tofu is pretty worthless: Its soft, gelatinous texture is nothing like that of chicken or beef. As a partner for meat, though, tofu is much more appealing. By combining tofu and fish, McDonald’s Tofu Shinjo Nuggets continue a long East Asian tradition of accessorizing meat with tofu, or vice versa. Chinese dishes like ma po tofu, which combines tofu and pork in a spicy chili sauce, and Japanese dishes like agedashi tofu, which soaks deep-fried tofu in a savory fish broth, don’t try to pass off tofu as faux animal protein—they take advantage of tofu’s absorptiveness by pairing it with more flavorful ingredients. The popularity of these dishes demonstrates that lots of non-vegetarians like tofu when it’s mixed with meat.
If McDonald’s brings Tofu Shinjo Nuggets to other markets—like, say, the American market—it won’t win over devoted vegetarians, but it could rehabilitate tofu’s image in the public eye. And once Americans realize that tofu tastes pretty good when mixed with animal products, tofu-and-chicken nuggets—and maybe even tofu-and-beef burgers—might not seem so outlandish. Chicken McNuggets in particular are already so processed that many people might not even notice a difference if McDonald’s started sneaking some tofu into them.
As I’ve written before, if fast food chains incorporated plant-based protein into their meat dishes, they could significantly reduce the demand for factory-farmed meat, which could in turn reduce industrial meat’s effects on the environment and on animal welfare. McDonald’s doesn’t need to “go vegetarian” to significantly reduce the amount of meat it sells—and Shinjo Tofu Nuggets are a big step in the right direction.