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.