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.
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."
While Scharffenberger has offered advice to Tsai and Notz, he admits that they face challenges not present in the chocolate business. "People definitely have a negative view of tofu," he says. "That's a problem."
Tsai and Notz, however, see opening the factory as a chance to combat this very problem, and they are being strategic in shaping the tour. When visitors enter the plant, they are immediately greeted by a view of the yuba-making station, which was placed front and center because, says Notz, "It's the prettiest part of the process." And indeed, it is beautiful. Soy artisans in what Tsai describes as a "Zen-like state" pour soymilk into warming trays and then wait three minutes before peeling off the sheets of skin that form on top. They then hang the thin, pale sheets of finely textured yuba in long rows, reminiscent of bed linens drying on a clothesline.
After watching it being made, visitors sample the skins, first plain (which Tsai compares to a creamy and sweet sheet of pappardelle) and then in the prepared foods Hodo sells, like the popular poached yuba loaf or the soy omelet, in which pan-fried strips of toothsome yuba miraculously take on the texture and taste of egg.
Tofu tourists will also watch as pulp is extracted from a soybean mush, using a spectrometer to measure the amount of solid left in the remaining soymilk. While Notz won't divulge the exact ratio of solid to liquid in Hodo's soymilk, he says it's much richer than what you'd buy at your local supermarket. "American soymilk tries to strip out bean flavor to make it more dairy-like." Tsai calls Hodo's version "unadulterated bean juice."
That admittedly sounds terrible to most Americans, but Hodo's milk is actually sweet and nutty and makes for a comforting drink, especially when served warm. Besides, richer soymilk makes for richer tofu. And visitors will see and taste each step of the process, from the raw soybeans--shipped from organic Midwestern cooperatives--to the freshly-made tofu, which is wrapped in cheesecloth and pressed to achieve varying degrees of desired firmness, to the prepared dishes that are developed in the onsite kitchen. "What I would love to be known for," says Tsai, "is as the guy who made tofu yummy. Go to Minh, he's the guy who's going to change your mind on tofu." And on the horizon, says Notz, perhaps a tofu and wine pairing.