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November 8, 2023
A Japanese Homestyle Meatball Clinches The Comfort Food Crown

Rie McClenny’s tsukune recipe mixes in tofu for a bouncy, bountiful chicken meatball

I don’t often crave meat, but especially in colder weather, I find myself overcome with a hunger that only meatballs can fix. The pleasure of a meatball is pure and immediate. It’s a food that is both savory and satisfying, lifted with aromatics and easily nudged apart with a spoon.

Luckily, I have plenty of options in the vast meatball galaxy, from rich red-sauce fare to herbaceous bún chả, but lately I’ve fixated on Rie McClenny’s tsukune from her debut cookbook Make It Japanese, her guide to accessible Japanese home cooking written with novelist Sanaë Lemoine. By mixing ground chicken with bouncy tofu for a lighter texture and brushing the resulting meatballs with with sweet soy and sake–spiked sauce for a glossy finish, she creates plush meatballs perfect for serving atop warm rice.

The secret to creating soft and, dare we say, moist meatballs lies in using pressed firm tofu as a binder, similar to the function of soaked bread or bread crumbs in traditional Italian meatballs. “Tofu’s natural moisture content and neutral flavor blends in well, and it can help make meatballs fluffy and juicy,” says McClenny. “Also, tofu is a more nutritious option compared to adding bread,” she adds, noting that swapping tofu for bread as a binder is popular across Japan. (McClenny uses tofu in the book’s mochi donut recipe, too.) Mixing in tofu also stretches the chicken further, making a more sustainable and cost-effective meatball that still delivers a satisfying protein boost.

While meatballs are sometimes cooked in the oven, McClenny pan-fries her meatballs in a covered cast iron skillet. Keeping everything on the stovetop means she can use the same pan to reduce soy sauce, sake, mirin, and a little sugar for an all-important glaze—called tare. The umami pop you experience with yakitori? That’s the tare talking.

McClenny also suggests serving the meatballs dipped into rich egg yolk, a traditional pairing at yakitori restaurants in Japan. “The yolk adds richness to the meatball and complements the salty and sweet tare sauce,” she says, noting that eggs in Japan are typically considered safe to eat uncooked. Squeamish about eating raw eggs? Make the meatballs with poached eggs instead, which will still offer a runny yolk for dipping, or look for high-quality, pasteurized raw eggs. They offer a grounding, rich base note of flavor that brings a beloved comfort food to satisfying new heights.

RECIPE: Chicken-Tofu Tsukune

Aliza Abarbanel

Aliza Abarbanel is a contributing editor at TASTE, the co-founder and co-editor of Cake Zine, and a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Previously, she was an editor at Bon Appetit.