When it comes to tofu, it has not been easy to feel the love for this flavorless, flabby, solid white brick of coagulated protein. Over the years, many of us have eaten it not because we actually liked the stuff, but simply to feel virtuous, altruistic, or to slyly impress a hot vegan date. But a new age of tofu has dawned — one that holds the promise of elevating this much-maligned ingredient once relegated to Asian cuisines and the Birkenstock-wearing set to the same high esteem as the best artisan chocolates, cheeses, and breads.
Indeed, you’ll now find the lowly bean curd at unexpected gourmet haunts, including the likes of the über-elegant Cyrus in Healdsburg, where Chef Douglas Keane has been serving made-to-order custardy, soft tofu for years. At the new Baume in Palo Alto, known for its sci-fi molecular gastronomy-inflected cuisine, Chef Bruno Chemel whips tofu into a smooth, creamy dip for his house-made, nori flatbread that resembles delicate Japanese paper. At the celebrated Coi in San Francisco, Chef Daniel Patterson’s “Earth and Sea” (steamed tofu mousseline with tofu skin, seaweed and mushroom dashi) is a signature dish. Look for tofu to show up in Cal-Med preparations at his soon-to-open Bracina in Oakland’s Jack London Square, too.
Part of tofu’s newfound popularity, especially among today’s organic-devouring, gym-obsessed set, is no doubt due to the fact that the Food and Drug Administration approved “heart healthy” claims for soy in 1999. From 2006 to 2007, retail sales of soy foods and beverages in this country jumped 7 percent to $2.1 billion, according to market researcher, Packaged Facts. By the end of 2012, it’s expected to soar to nearly $3 billion, although questions still exist about the purported health benefits of soy products.
Some of tofu’s new glory also can be attributed to one man, a veritable Bay Area tofu evangelist, whose fresh, organic, artisan soy products have won over chefs and diners alike at Coi, Greens, and the Slanted Door in San Francisco; and Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen in Berkeley.
Last fall, the 39-year-old, former-financial-consultant-turned-soy-czar, Minh Tsai, opened his own 12,000-square-foot tofu factory, Hodo Soy Beanery in Oakland. At full capacity, Hodo can produce 1,000 pounds of tofu daily that sell for about $2.50 per block. Like an artisan chocolatier, Hodo even offers $10 public tours every other Wednesday that show off the tofu-making process. Tsai’s tofu products, including nuggets, croquettes, and various prepared salads, are sold at twelve Bay Area farmers’ markets, as well as such gourmet grocery stores as Monterey Market in Berkeley, Piedmont Grocery in Oakland, and Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco.
Tsai first started making his own tofu at home five years ago after growing frustrated that he couldn’t find the same fresh, quality tofu in the Bay Area that he grew up enjoying in his native Vietnam. There, as a child, he would walk to the neighborhood tofu shack daily with his grandfather for cups of warm soy milk and blocks of just-made tofu.
“Tofu is such a mystery to people, including myself,” said Tsai, who learned how to perfect it from his food-scientist in-laws. “There’s a lot of science to it. It’s also a lost art.”
Although bean curd originated in China more than 2,000 years ago, in the United States it’s commonly referred to by its Japanese name, tofu, because the Japanese popularized it in this country. At Hodo, organic, dried, non-GMO, Midwestern soybeans are soaked, then ground into a mash that’s cooked. The milk is then separated from the bean pulp. Then, calcium sulfate is added to coagulate the milk. The resulting curds are pressed to create tofu of various textures.
Hodo’s products are made with soy milk that’s thicker than that which goes into other mass-marketed tofu. Just how much thicker, though, Tsai won’t reveal. The results are tofu products that are especially rich and creamy, with a fresh, pure beany flavor.
Just ask Coi’s Patterson. “Comparing regular supermarket tofu to Hodo’s tofu is like comparing a canned tomato to a real tomato,” Patterson said. “Usually, the supermarket stuff is eaten out of necessity. It feels obligatory. But the Hodo products are all pleasurable. They’re not dry and rubbery. It made me think, ‘I really want to eat some tofu.'”
Unlike conventional supermarket tofu, which can last in the refrigerator for thirty to sixty days, Hodo’s tofu is meant to be eaten fresh within seven days.
“When it’s made fresh, it’s just such a different product,” said Hodo co-founder, Dean Ku. “We don’t promote it as a health item, but as a fresh, tasty product. We want to change people’s perceptions. People are surprised by all the textures and all the things you can do with it.”
Patterson is especially a fan of the tofu skin, known as yuba. Hodo is thought to be the only company in the United States that makes fresh, organic yuba. It’s all made by hand, too, in a laborious, rather poetic process.
Trays of soy milk are steamed until the proteins rise to the surface and a skin forms. A Hodo employee then gently lifts the skins from each tray, and hangs them to dry like muslin sheets dangling from a clothesline on a spring day. Folded into plastic bags, the vegan, gluten-free yuba, which taste like silky, thin pappardelle, are sold at Monterey Market in Berkeley.
Patterson likes to float julienned strips of yuba in his curried summer squash soup or to stack and weight sheets of yuba, then fry cubes of it to create what he calls “the lightest, crunchiest, most delicate chips imaginable.”
At Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen, a salad topped with an “omelet” made from folded yuba was created for a vegetarian-option for Passover.
Peter Levitt, the executive chef at Saul’s, was an early convert, ever since Tsai began selling tofu at the Berkeley’s farmers’ market right outside the restaurant’s doorstep about five years ago.
Now, a “Minh’s Hodo Tofu Scramble” with toast and salad ($9.25) is offered as a special almost every morning. Although the accompanying ingredients vary with the season — asparagus and leeks in spring to heirloom tomatoes and tarragon in summer — the basic scramble remains the same. Levitt combines silken tofu with nutritional yeast powder, soy sauce, and turmeric to create a mixture that has the color of scrambled eggs even before it’s cooked.
“This is a Jewish deli so we’re not supposed to be eating tofu anyway,” Levitt said with a laugh. “Believe me, I wouldn’t have just gone to the supermarket to buy some tofu. I had no need to do a tofu scramble. But Minh’s product came around, and I thought this could be very interesting.”
The tofu scramble has proven a hit at Saul’s, even among non-vegetarians, with ten to twenty orders of it sold each day.
“When it comes to tofu, a lot of people still think, ‘Why would I want to eat this?'” Levitt said. “But some people will taste the scramble when someone at their table orders it, and they are really surprised at how much they like it.”
Which just goes to show how far this once-sneered-at ingredient has come.
“‘Tofu eater’ is still not a compliment, at least among the cross section of society,” Patterson said. “I wouldn’t say by any stretch that people have given up on tofu clichés. But I would say that people’s perceptions of tofu are definitely evolving. They’re realizing that when it’s done well, it’s just a really delicious product.”