NEW YORK -- 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 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 such as ma po tofu, which combines tofu and pork in a spicy chili sauce, and Japanese dishes such as agedashi tofu, which soaks deep-fried tofu in a fish broth, don't try to pass off tofu as faux animal protein -- they take advantage of tofu's absorbency by pairing it with more flavourful 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 -- such as, say, the American market -- it won't win over devoted vegetarians, but it could rehabilitate tofu's image. And once Americans realize 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.
If fast-food chains were to incorporate plant-based protein into meat dishes, they could significantly reduce the demand for factory-farmed meat, which could 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.