.Soy Oh Soy

Tofu Yu pushes the bean curd envelope.

It’s sweet in the same the way that very old music played in dark rooms is sweet: sly, hypnotic, holding back a bit because it knows. It’s bitter in an arch, you-know-you-want-me way: bright cacao bitterness that goes out on a limb because it can. Spooned up, it curls fudgily thick. It’s an unbelievably adult chocolate mousse.

But pssst. It isn’t made of what mousse is “supposed to” be made of. This is tofu mousse, its sly sweetness derived from maple syrup and agave nectar, the sap of that barbed-spear yucca-family plant that also yields tequila. It’s one of many concoctions crafted from bean curd manufactured in a small West Berkeley plant that is the headquarters of Tofu Yu, whose Berkeley takeout restaurant opened in July and whose larger El Cerrito restaurant will open any day now. Machines imported from Harbin, Manchuria — where co-owner He Hua Yu ran two tofu companies before emigrating in 1996 — grind organically grown soybeans, boil the mash into milk, thicken it with magnesium chloride, blend and reblend it, then exude it in the form of soft blocks, firm slabs, and durable sheets as thin as felt or cold cuts. East Bay-bred chef Stuart Reiter, who attended UC Berkeley before cooking at flesh-free San Francisco xanadus Greens and Millennium, fashions it into meatless “meat” sandwiches, wheatless aram sandwiches, wheatless pasta, cheeseless “cheese”cake, salads, mousse, and more. His carefully calibrated sauces — pesto and barbecue for sandwiches, intense sweet-tart strawberry for the cheesecake — and the delicate daikon-carrot-celery-onion-ginger blend infused into such offerings as fried “Tovegie Balls” afford some of this area’s best impostures and dexterous East-West crossover leaps.

At what point does it cease to matter that what you are eating looks and tastes like one thing but is really something else? At what point does such food attain its own identity and all guess-what-this-is novelty wears off?

For those on special diets — vegan, low-fat, kosher, gluten-free: anything where clever substitutions mean the difference between meals and masochism, between living a full life and living like a monk — it never does. For them, each milkless shake is news. But we have reached a time and place when food that formerly would have been meant for those on special diets — made for them and only them to scrabble over while, for everyone else, the world was a smorgasbord — is now delicious and diverse enough to stand on its own as just food, not marginal fringe food that requires qualifiers.

Reiter’s mousse is tofu-based and vegan. But in a town that spurts fancy desserts like Saudi Arabia spurts oil, this mousse is a lick-up-every-molecule experience. It is made of beans and something that resembles cactus. But who the hell cares?

While vacationing in China with He Hua Yu a few years ago, Berkeley architect Kevin Stong was fascinated by the many varieties of tofu made there. Founding Tofu Yu, which they call a “soybeanery,” the pair imported machinery (one steel behemoth bears a brand insignia proclaiming MODEL BEAN CURD MACHINE in English and Chinese), and hired Reiter, who after finishing a Peace Corps stint in Ghana got his first professional break cooking for Sisters of the Road, an Oregon feed-the-poor nonprofit. Further experience as a raw-food chef at Portland’s Blossoming Lotus restaurant expanded his facsimilizing skills. And as tofu goes, that’s what the West does best.

At the Eighth Street factory, where burlap sacks of raw ingredients wait to be processed, Reiter marvels that “this wonderful nutrient source” derives “from a pretty inhospitable space: a little bowl of soybeans.” Given free rein to reimagine Western classics such as macaroni and cheese while “widening the scope of seasonings” typically applied to tofu, he developed a product line that debuted at farmers’ markets from San Leandro to Pinole.

A stone’s throw from the future Berkeley Bowl, the new counter-service-only slip of a Berkeley takeout restaurant stocks deli-style items (in compostable green packaging), as well as ice cream and coffees. Three types of hot sandwich are made to order, with a range of wholesome, refreshingly not-too-sweet pastries baked at the nearby Eighth Street facility.

Mild chunky coleslaw counterpoises spunky agave-sweetened barbecue sauce cloaking firm tofu slabs in cold sandwiches that, given the complexity of these combined flavors and textures and the friability of their soymilk-rich bread, are better (if Philistinically) eaten with knife and fork. Made-to-order hot sandwiches such as the faux-chicken/cheese/pesto combo on sourdough hold up better between two hands and are filling enough — when eaten with, say, a black-bean salad or a Caesar salad, which is big on romaine and tofu-sheet shards but which Tuffy found unimaginative — for just one to make two meals.

That’s the thing about tofu. Dishes in which it replaces flour-based ingredients fill you right up without carb-stupor or carb-guilt. Based on traditional Chinese versions, chewy tofu pasta comprises sheets sliced superfine, sold plain but ready to eat: Reiter recommends serving it in a substantial Asian-style broth. Wrapped aram-style around julienned vegetables, with a hint of jalapeño lending a debatably necessary air of catch-me-if-you-can internationality, durable tofu sheets never get gluey the way pita bread does. This makes them picnic-perfect. So too is the smoked tofu ham: jalapeño-spiked sheets rolled into each other to form a firm fist-size ball, easily sliced. Inspired by a classic Hunan duck recipe, jasmine-green-tea-smoked tofu slabs look as Chinese as all get-out. But in the mouth they evoke both Brie and bratwurst.

Which might, when the initial shock wears off, actually mean that this food is the future. Watch this space.


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