For some people, the thought of tofu is enough to disrupt their appetite.
But for others in the know, tofu is poised for the same geeky-chic disruption as so many other tech ventures.
Minh Tsai, former investment banker turned tofu master, is leading that charge.
The founder of Oakland’s Hodo Soy Beanery, Tsai brought together a group of the Bay Area’s top chefs and food writers last week at the San Francisco Cooking School to ponder and taste tofu 2.0 — the next iteration of thinking and cooking with the much maligned soybean product.
“We want people to talk about tofu differently, to take it to another level,” says Tsai.
For years, tofu has been thought of mainly as a meat substitute for vegetarians. In fact, I admit that my first thought when being invited to the five-course dinner that night was that it was to be vegetarian.
Instead, there was fish and meat aplenty, alongside the tofu, to demonstrate its versatility.
Of course, Tsai has a vested interest, as his Hodo Soy makes so many different tofu products. But there’s no denying that he’s been a real pioneer in developing artisan tofu with a clean, fresh bean-y flavor delicious enough to attract top chefs and people who ordinarily might not eat tofu much.
Working with more than 20 organic soybean growers in the United States, Tsai has grown his company from a small farmer’s market stand to a tofu factory that now turns out products that can be found for sale at Costco and on the menu at Chipotle.
He recently started selling his products on the East Coast. After only three weeks, Hodo Soy products are already being used by 75 businesses, including the illustrious Lincoln Ristorante in Manhattan.
Among the invited guests to dine at Tofu Disruption were such heavy-hitters as Chef Josh Skenes of Saison in San Francisco; Danny Bowien, founder of Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco and New York; and John Scharffenberger, who co-founded Scharffen Berger Chocolate before selling it to the Hershey Company.
In the kitchens at the cooking school that night were chefs Brandon Jew of the forthcoming Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco, Omri Aflalo of Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco, Kim Alter of the upcoming Nightbird in San Francisco, Johnny Madriaga of Spruce in San Francisco, and Bill Corbett, late of Absinthe in San Francisco.
They were tasked with using tofu in every course. They were game to use different forms of it and to feature it in ways that weren’t the obvious ones.
Alter has long experimented with the tofu products, and even spoke about tofu with Chef Daniel Patterson at Madrid Fusion. For this dinner, she took okara, the spent soy pulp that’s normally sold for animal feed, and smoked it to serve alongside black cod and fried yuba skin as crisp and light as a pappadam.
For quite a few of the chefs, though, cooking with tofu was largely uncharted territory.
“Spruce and tofu have never been one,” Madriaga half-joked. “So, I looked to my Filipino culture — but I hit a dead end there, too. It’s been a fun and interesting challenge for me to cook with it tonight.”
He took inspiration from traditional adobo, braising firm tofu with coconut milk alongside pork belly. The dish came out so well, he joked, “Maybe you’ll see it on the Spruce menu soon!”
Jew explained that his training is half Italian and half Chinese, so he combined the two for his dish, using nama yuba (young, creamy yuba) to stand in for burrata.
Corbett, a vegetarian, knows tofu well. Even he, though, tried something he hadn’t done before — pairing yuba with vanilla-soy parsnip mousse, parsnip cake and cocao nibs for the dessert.
That was followed by a two-bite vegan German chocolate cake. Made with tofu, of course.
Which just goes to show that tofu can be virtuous — or even decadent.
Imagine the possibilities.