Photo by Gabriel Schreiber
Dark chocolate. Cabernet Sauvignon. Triple cream cheese. Tofu.
If your immediate response to this list is that one of these things is not like the other, then you are the target audience for Oakland, California-based Tofu Master Minh Tsai. He loves the challenge of a skeptic, but he hopes that by the time he's finished, you'll put his soy products in the pantheon of the other artisanal foods that have made the Bay Area famous.
Although Tsai, a native of Vietnam, grew up loving tofu, he doesn't blame people for being skeptical of the stuff. Rather he blames the kind of tofu most Americans eat: sealed plastic packages filled with white bricks soaking in stale, milky water. "That's not how tofu is meant to be eaten," Tsai tells me. "People don't know what it's like to eat tofu. They associate tofu with a boring, bland, rubbery piece of protein that you mix with sauce. It's a stigma."
For the last five years, Tsai has been working to overcome this stigma by introducing Bay Area palates to the kind of tofu he ate growing up in Asia, where--as Atlantic Food Channel correspondent Jarrett Wrisley recently described--the food is eaten fresh, often the day it's made. Under the brand name Hodo Soy Beanery, Tsai and his business partner, John Notz, sell their organic, artisanal versions of tofu, soymilk, and yuba (tofu skin) at farmer's markets from San Rafael to Santa Cruz. Operating under a model that Notz likens to a "regional dairy" they keep their distribution small so that they can maintain a hands-on approach to production and to the ready-to-eat dishes that make up a large part of their trade.
Like its Asian counterparts, Hodo's tofu is richer, creamier, and more redolent of soybeans than what is generally available in the States.
I first happened upon Hodo at the giant farmer's market at San Francisco's Ferry Building where I was drawn in by free samples of their braised tofu salad. The spicy teriyaki sauce was piquant with a hint of sweetness, but it was the tofu itself that really impressed me. While I generally like tofu just fine, it rarely elicits a strong response in me--mainly in China and Japan. But like its Asian counterparts, Hodo's tofu is richer, creamier, and more redolent of soybeans than what is generally available in the States. This unique texture and flavor have also caught the attention of chefs at high-end restaurants like Coi and Slanted Door, whose menus regularly feature Hodo tofu and yuba by name; Google relies on Hodo tofu for the breakfast patties in its famous cafeteria.
Now as part of their plan working to "reintroduce tofu to the world as a new food" Tsai and Notz have moved into a larger production facility, a former candy factory in West Oakland, which they will open in December for public tours.
In doing so, they are part of a line of Bay Area food artisans who generate interest in their products by revealing their processes. Notz cites many of their forbears as inspiration for what Hodo is doing in Oakland. Chez Panisse did it with its open kitchen. Hodo advisor John Scharffenberger drew fame for his company Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker by opening up his Berkeley plant to the public, having himself learned about the merit of food tours from his days in the wine business, where for years wineries have wooed customers with tastings and vineyard visits. "People always want to see how you do stuff," he says. "It broadens people's enjoyment of something."