Give tofu a chance

Give tofu a chance

Has tofu gone the way of Birkenstocks, Tie-dye and Patchouli? If sales figures told the whole story, one might assume dark days lie ahead for the lowly bean curd.

According to an April report from market research firm Mintel, the soy food and beverage market declined 16 percent from 2008 to 2010 and is expected to dip another 17 percent through 2012. Sales of tofu specifically have been “lackluster” for years, according to Soyatech Inc., dipping 2.3 percent to $251 million in 2009, down from a peak of $265 in 2003. In the health-food loving natural channel, sales of tofu slumped another 3.9 percent in the past 52 weeks according to SPINS.

Even American Idol recently dissed the dish, with contestant Jacob Lusk gagging, and likening it to lard during a blindfolded taste-test.

But Minh Tsai isn’t worried.

“My mission is to demystify tofu and re-educate people about it,” says the idealistic founder of Oakland-based Hodo Soy Beanery. “People think of it as a bland product that has to be smothered in sauce. We want to show it has the right to stand alone.”

I first reached out to Tsai after a taste-test at the Hodo booth at Natural Products Expo West stopped me in my tracks. What is that stuff? I asked, as I piled free samples onto my napkin. It was at once nutty, sweet and creamy - no resemblance to the bland white brick that has been languishing in my refrigerator for a month. Dare I say, it tasted gourmet?

That’s precisely Minh’s goal. Since opening the beanery in 2004, the Vietnam-born artisan has approached tofu production as a creative expression, using protein-rich non-GMO soybeans bought from farmers he knows by name and skipping the pasteurization process that often strips conventional tofu of nutrients and flavor. He specializes in yuba strips, made from the heavenly delicacy of tofu skin that forms atop soymilk as it is being heated. He does much of it by hand – often in front of curious tour groups at his 12,000-foot workshop. And he delivers it fresh to customers at farm stands, restaurants, and retailers (including select Whole Foods) within 24 hours. To further promote his gourmet aspirations, he recently named high-end winemaker and chocolatier John Scharffenberger (of Scharffen Berger chocolates) as his CEO.

Tsai’s efforts have been paying off big, with gourmet Bay Area eateries like Coi and the Slanted Door prominently featuring Hodo tofu on the menu, and food writers regularly dishing him props.

Whether Tsai can bring the slumping national tofu market back from the dead remains to be seen. (He says he’s taking “baby steps” and confining distribution to the West Coast). But for now, he has convinced this former bean-curd hater to try another taste.

It appears even tofu can taste good if it’s made with a little love.

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