Tofu is good for your health. But is it good for your taste­buds too?

Men's Health (Singapore) - - AM / NUTRITION -

“It’s chalky. It’s taste­less. What’s the point?” Minh Tsai says con­fi­den­tially, get­ting up close, al­most whis­per­ing, “I don’t blame you for not lov­ing it.”

Which is just about the last thing that I am ex­pect­ing to hear as I’m stand­ing on the hum­ming floor of Hodo, Tsai’s bustling tofu-pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity in Oak­land’s ware­house dis­trict. Tsai leads me, in white jacket, hair­net, and scrubs, on a tour. I see the high-grade soy­beans he uses (har­vested ex­clu­sively from the Amer­i­can Mid­west). I wit­ness a process al­most like cheese mak­ing that he has in­ge­niously adapted into a hy­brid op­er­a­tion, part me­chan­i­cal and part hands-on. He tells me that Hodo ships ap­prox­i­mately 22,700kg of tofu prod­ucts each day.

Along the way, Tsai doles out sam­ples, pinch­ing off pieces from the pro­duc­tion line—tofu both firm and soft, tofu trans­formed into nuggets, tofu fash­ioned into chewy strips. At one point, pop­ping a taste of warm, fresh-from-the­vat tofu into my mouth, he of­fers up some tast­ing notes. Nutty, he says. Com­plex.

For sure, the nut­ti­est, most com­plex firm tofu I’ve ever had. But do I dare tell him that I don’t love it?

It tastes more like a sub­sti­tute for some­thing, I say. Tsai nods, un­daunted, and takes me to the room where he makes yuba, the thin layer that forms atop the soy milk as it cooks, sort of like the skin that de­vel­ops on a pud­ding.

“I call yuba the gate­way drug for tofu,” Tsai says, us­ing a small knife to cut into one of the rec­tan­gu­lar pans of yuba that have been set up in rows, not un­like the de­vel­op­ing pans in a pho­tog­ra­pher’s dark- room. The process cre­ates a tofu prod­uct that’s denser in protein (21 grams in 85 grams ver­sus firm tofu’s 14). Tsai holds out to me what looks like a wad of chewed, dun-coloured gum. The skin, al­most half­way be­tween solid and liq­uid, col­lapses into his palm. Go ahead, he says, of­fer­ing me a taste. The im­pli­ca­tion is not lost on me: I am go­ing to have you eat­ing out of the palm of my hand. And so he does. The yuba is not like any tofu I’ve ever eaten: lus­cious, creamy, more like a bun­dle of warm, freshly made moz­zarella. Tsai, smil­ing but dead-eyed, and sound­ing more like a fu­tur­is­tic tech ti­tan than the maker of an an­cient soy prod­uct, says solemnly: “So you have seen now what is pos­si­ble.”

I’m not a tofu hater. Hate im­plies dis­dain or an­i­mos­ity. I’m in­dif­fer­ent to the stuff. Tofu just is—nei­ther good nor bad, nei­ther mem­o­rable nor of­fen­sive. I don’t doubt this is a po­si­tion born of ig­no­rance, but I would ar­gue that that ig­no­rance is born of a lack of tra­di­tion, of con­text. Amer­ica has never been what you would call a tofu-mak­ing coun­try even though Asian cul­tures have been pro­duc­ing it for more than a thou­sand years. Its his­tory in the U. S. be­gins prop­erly in the 1970s, says Tara McHugh, Ph.D., a food tech­nol­o­gist and re­searcher at the USDA. This was around the time when eco-con­scious­ness was as­cen­dant, when plant-based eat­ing went from the mar­gins to the main­stream. It was not de­li­cious­ness that ac­counted for its rel­a­tively rapid adop­tion in the U. S. It was pol­i­tics. Tofu was not meat. It did not come from fac­tory farms. If you were look­ing to take a per­sonal stand against agribusi­ness, if you wanted to ab­stain from the ills of car­ni­vores, tofu was a con­ve­nient ve­hi­cle, a kind of culi­nary con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tion. In this ide­o­log­i­cal con­text, it was al­most un­seemly to sug­gest that, well, tofu didn’t taste all that great. Flavour? How about the flavour of the re­sis­tance?

Since the ’70s, tofu mak­ing has be­come more wide­spread, so it is no sur­prise that the qual­ity has be­come bet­ter and bet­ter.

And it’s turn­ing up in fast-food burg­ers and milk­shakes and even be­com­ing, of all things, a pro­cessed food­stuff—To­futti, a mass-mar­ket brand that makes dairy-free “ice cream.” Not even the In­ter­net-fu­elled ru­mour that the


phy­toe­stro­gens in tofu would lead to a con­di­tion called gy­nae­co­mas­tia (that’s man boobs to you and me) has slowed its reemer­gence.

“It’s time to take back tofu,” Tsai tells me over lunch the day af­ter I met him at the fac­tory. Take it back? “Take it back from the hip­pies and the pol­i­tics,” he says. In other words, if you re­gard tofu only as a lack­lus­tre sub­sti­tute for meat, if it is syn­ony­mous in your imag­i­na­tion with co-ops and com­munes, if you


as­sume it to be solely the prov­ince of Asian cuisines, then Tsai’s ask­ing you—yes, you—to open your mind so that he can then blow it. “Let’s just make it de­li­cious,” he says. “It is de­li­cious.”

Tsai, a for­mer in­vest­ment banker and man­age­ment con­sul­tant who started his tofu busi­ness with lit­tle more than a method and a story, be­gan sell­ing his hand­made prod­uct at farm­ers mar­kets in the Bay Area 15 years ago. He re­fined his method, he tells me, by tast­ing every brand he could get his hands on. It didn’t take him long to re­alise what was miss­ing: flavours. “I wanted to make a tofu that has flavours. To achieve flavours, I needed higher protein and fat in the soy­beans.” That meant de­vel­op­ing a process whereby he could pro­duce a much thicker soy milk. A thicker soy milk means a higher-protein tofu, which re­sults in a richer, creamier flavour and a tex­ture with more chew. To­day, the Hodo fac­tory churns out 16 prod­ucts, with 20 ex­pected by next year. This past Fe­bru­ary, in San Fran­cisco, Tsai con­vened an event called Tofu Evolved. Yes, a tofu sym­po­sium—only in San Fran­cisco—where he spoke elo­quently and pas­sion­ately about tofu as a po­ten­tial force in a food fu­ture that will be greener and cleaner.

Then, sev­eral months later, he changed the name of his com­pany from Hodo Soy to Hodo—thereby re­mov­ing from the brand any ref­er­ence to the one in­gre­di­ent with­out which tofu does not ex­ist. The change came in ad­vance of a mar­ket push in which Tsai brought his line of pack­aged tofu prod­ucts—among them yuba sesame noo­dles, tofu nuggets, and the same firm tofu blocks that, yes, Chipo­tle cur­rently crum­bles up into its ve­gan sofritas—to Whole Foods. But how much of “new tofu” was hype? I de­cided to let my taste buds de­cide.

In the days af­ter tour­ing the Hodo plant with Tsai, I do some­thing I have never done—some­thing I have never wanted to do: I gorge my­self on tofu. Now, I have gone on bar­be­cue ben­ders and burger ben­ders, and I have spent weeks chas­ing the best pizza, ke­babs, and choco­late-chip cook­ies. But I’ve never eaten tofu morn­ing, noon, and night. Tofu fast food and tofu fine din­ing. I feel like I’m shoot­ing some foodie buddy movie, with Tsai shot­gun.

As ea­ger as I am to see if, fi­nally, I can be made to like tofu, Tsai is ea­ger too. Be­cause if I do like it, then that means that maybe the vi­sion he is bank­ing on is not some dream, it is real.

Over the past few years, Tsai has cul­ti­vated re­la­tion­ships with some of San Fran­cisco’s best and most am­bi­tious chefs, and he has ar­ranged, with my ap­proval, a se­ries of demo meals with his most ar­dent adopters to prove to me not just that a wide va­ri­ety of ap­pli­ca­tions is pos­si­ble but also that tofu is not what I think it is. The chefs, for their part, are happy to play along. When I meet with Stu­art Bri­oza, ex­ec­u­tive chef of State Bird Pro­vi­sions and the Progress, a mod­ern-Amer­i­can restau­rant in San Fran­cisco, it’s a late-af­ter­noon lunch be­tween shifts. With his staff in the throes of din­ner prep, the chef slips mis­chie­vously into the kitchen to show off his yuba game, tak­ing the same thin, chewy sheets I’d sam­pled at the fac­tory and ac­ces­soris­ing them with smoked black cod, spring peas, and a black-but­ter ponzu. Two bites in and I for­get en­tirely that I’m eat­ing tofu.

I’m still try­ing to process just what it is I’m eat­ing, be­cause there is no mis­tak­ing it for a sub­sti­tute, when this highly dec­o­rated ex­ec­u­tive chef who once lived and cooked in Italy makes a star­tling pro­nounce­ment. Not only is his ver­sion of amatriciana, made with thin strips cut from Hodo’s tofu sheets, just as good as an amatriciana made with, say, pap­pardelle. Not only is it a con­vinc­ing sub­sti­tute that sur­prises your palate, he says. No, Bri­oza says, his ver­sion of amatriciana made with yuba is, in fact, bet­ter.

I wrin­kle my brow. “Se­ri­ously—much bet­ter,” Bri­oza in­sists. Be­cause of the chew of the yuba and the tex­ture; the way the Ro­man-in­spired sauce, a rich, zesty mix of toma­toes, onions, and guan­ciale (salt-cured pork), clings to it. He has a point.

Later that night, still buzzing from my eye- and palate-open­ing en­counter with Bri­oza, I have din­ner at Mis­ter Jiu’s, a mod­ern Chi­nese restau­rant in the red-lan­tern-strewn heart of San Fran­cisco’s Chi­na­town. Given the restau­rant’s MO, I’m ex­pect­ing more tra­di­tional prepa­ra­tions of tofu from chef and owner Bran­don Jew. And there are a num­ber of them, but then, in the mid­dle of the

meal, chef Jew picks up Bri­oza’s pasta theme and ex­plores it with the same pas­sion.

If I didn’t know any bet­ter, I would as­sume the dish Jew sends to my ta­ble is a pasta, specif­i­cally mal­t­agliati, the Emilia-Ro­magna clas­sic of torn and ir­reg­u­lar rags of noo­dle, here topped, lustily, with morels, duck egg, and gar­lic scapes.

An­other night, I visit Nightbird, a cosy tast­ing-menu haunt in the Hayes Val­ley neigh­bour­hood. The chef, Kim Al­ter, is in league with Bri­oza and Jew, both in try­ing to open up their al­ready ad­ven­ture­some cus­tomers to the idea that yuba is not nec­es­sar­ily Asian and in turn­ing to pasta as the pre­ferred point of en­try.

One of her favourite ways to make the con­nec­tion vis­ceral and im­me­di­ate is to fry those same strips of yuba un­til golden, achiev­ing a chewy-crunchy tex­ture rem­i­nis­cent of both pasta and snack chips, then dous­ing them with a vari­a­tion on a Cae­sar dress­ing, made with miso, Parme­san, egg yolks, gar­lic, and Di­jon. East meets West seam­lessly, and thrillingly.

The chefs, it’s clear, adore yuba; I adore yuba. It’s hard not to. But yuba is only one part of the tofu uni­verse. De­ter­mined to prove to me that block tofu, the more tra­di­tional form you’re used to see­ing in su­per­mar­kets, can also be a stand-alone prod­uct, Tsai takes me to James Sy­habout’s Hawk­ing Bird, in Oak­land, a de­ter­minedly un­slick fast-ca­sual,


fried-chicken-cen­tric restau­rant that looks out onto Tele­graph Av­enue.

Tsai stages a test of two sand­wiches on the menu. One is a chicken sand­wich, the other a slab of firm Hodo tofu that’s been fried to re­sem­ble a chicken sand­wich.

“Well?” Tsai asks af­ter I’ve downed sev­eral bites of each. I’m sur­prised to hear my­self say that I pre­fer the tofu to the chicken. Some­how the ac­tual chicken gets in the way of the de­li­ciously fried ex­te­rior, while the tofu, be­ing cleaner, does not.

See­ing me pol­ish it off, Tsai is ex­ul­tant. To him, love of the sand­wich is yet more proof of what he has been talk­ing about for days, that tofu is not a sub­sti­tute but the thing it­self, that it need not be in an Asian dish to be tasty, that it can go high and low.

True enough, and yet what does it say, I won­der, that I only re­ally like the tofu when I think I’m eat­ing some­thing else? I’ll take it, Tsai says. He smiles. “Baby steps.”

Af­ter my tofu crawl, I’m de­ter­mined to ap­ply the les­sons I’ve learned at home. I make a de­cent dish with firm tofu, sesame oil, chopped cu­cum­ber and cel­ery, rice-wine vine­gar, and Sriracha. Think­ing back to chefs Jew and Bri­oza, I heat up left­over mari­nara, tear in some yuba, toss ev­ery­thing, grate on some fresh Parme­san, add a few dol­lops of ri­cotta, driz­zle on some olive oil, and sprin­kle with salt and pep­per. It’s good—and, for a sec­ond, I even en­ter­tain thoughts of mak­ing it for friends. Would I lie to them about what it is, or would I tell them, but only af­ter let- ting them think it’s some­thing else? The lat­ter, def­i­nitely the lat­ter. Baby steps.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Singapore

© PressReader. All rights reserved.