Berkeley Bites: Minh Tsai, Hodo Soy Beanery

by Sarah Henry on September 10, 2010 · 32 comments

in bay citizen,berkeley bites,food businesses

Minh Tsai is on a mission to make tofu the next hip artisanal food. He knows he has a ways to go to get many Americans to even taste tofu but if anyone can make it cool to eat bean curd, this enthusiastic self-described tofu master is the man for the job.

Tsai grew up eating fresh tofu from street vendors in his native Vietnam. He arrived in the U.S. via Malaysia, part of the so-called boat people exodus. Both his parents were good cooks but growing up in San Francisco he never found tofu to rival the homemade curd he’d known in his homeland.

Instead, American tofu was industrially produced and hermetically sealed in plastic packages filled with white rubbery blocks soaking in stale, milky water that, says Tsai, would be unrecognizable (and unpalatable) to many in Asia.

Tsai had a successful run in money management before he turned his hand to food production. He weathered several recessions in the economic sector but after more than a decade wanted to find work that wasn’t at the mercy of the financial markets.

Since he loved food, and ate out a lot, he decided to try to perfect the food he missed from his early childhood. Tsai and his cousins began experimenting with making tofu and started selling soy products at Bay Area farmers’ markets in 2004.

And that’s how this bean business was born. Recent developments suggest the company is doing well. Hodo Soy Beanery (hodo means “good bean”) opened its new facility in a former candy factory in West Oakland late last year. The plant boasts state-of-the-art machinery designed in consultation with one of the oldest remaining tofu equipment producers in Asia.

Earlier this year the company named chocolate and sparkling wine entrepreneur John Scharffenberger as its new CEO. The addition of this big picture food guru, frees Tsai to focus on the details he does best: New products, quality control, and education.

Hodo products are made from organic, non-GMO soybeans sourced from third-generation growers in the mid-West. The beanery makes block tofu, yuba  (tofu) skins, and soy milk, as well as a ready-to-eat line of soy dishes, such as braised tofu salad, soy omelette, and five-spice tofu nuggets.

Tsai and his crew can be found at Berkeley Farmers’ Markets. Hodo products are sold at Whole Foods, Berkeley Natural Grocery, Monterey Market, Star Grocery, and Tokyo Fish Market, as well as other Bay Area locations.

Tsai has made impressive headway promoting this humble little legume in a relatively short time. Fancy pants restaurants such as Slanted Door, Coi, and Greens use Hodo ingredients, as does Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen, Gather, and new Japanese grill Ippuku. Coi chef Daniel Patterson sings the praises of Hodo Soy — and shares yuba recipes too — in the New York Times Magazine.

I caught up with Tsai, 39, this week at the factory. He lives in Albany with his wife and two young sons.

Tofu has a less-than-stellar reputation, considered healthy, hippie food by some, tasteless — or — worse by others. How do you get people excited about your products?

Tofu should taste good, that’s the most important thing for people to know.

I tell people it shouldn’t taste sour, slimy, boring, bland or chalky. That’s a sign of bad tofu.  We also encourage people to appreciate it on its own, a lot of people think that it’s important to disguise tofu with sauces or marinades. We don’t subscribe to that idea.

We don’t think of tofu as a meat substitute either. We want people to enjoy it on its own merits. It should be rich, creamy, and remind you of soybeans.

I tell people try three of my products before you tell me you don’t like the taste of tofu. I recommend people try the silken block tofu first and add it to soups or make a scramble with it. It’s also good in fruit smoothies.

What’s new at the factory?

We’re working on a line of tea-infused tofu, where the flavor is embedded inside the block. We’re at the research and development phase.

We’re also leading tours of the factory — in the way John [Scharffenberger] opened his Berkeley chocolate plant to the public — we think it’s important to be transparent and for people to see how this product is made. It’s 90 percent science and 10 percent art. We think that by revealing the tofu-making process and demystifying this food we’ll generate interest in our products.

And we’re offering tofu making classes, our first one is next Thursday. People want to know how to make this themselves.

How are Berkeley Farmers’ Market customers different from other buyers?

There’s a large population of vegetarians who are already eating tofu, so our product is an easy sell to that group.

Berkeley customers are inquisitive, informed and ask a lot of questions. They’re open to trying tofu in new ways or experimenting with different products.

I pretty much know the origin of everything I consume, who raised it and who made it. That’s an unbelievable luxury we have here and I think people here appreciate that too.

Are there other artisanal food producers you admire in the area?

I really like what Alex [Hozven] from Cultured does. She’s very innovative with her fermented food line.  I’ll try any of her seasonal sauerkrauts or kombuchas. A lot of what she makes go well with our products.

I think what June Taylor does is phenomenal. I enjoy her preserves on toast. Her products have such integrity. She really knows what to do with fruit.  She cuts up, mashes up, cooks down, and bottles. That’s it. She’s perfected an age-old preservation technique. There are no machines involved. I like the purity of the goods she makes.

Steve Sullivan from Acme Bread Company has educated people about bread, how it needs to be eaten fresh, that day or the next. I want people to realize that tofu is like bread. It should be eaten fresh and not kept in the fridge in old water for months. I want to become the tofu version of Acme. That’s my goal.

Any advice for folks new to preparing tofu?

Don’t overcook it. Simple is best. Check out our website for recipes.

(Photos: Courtesy Hodo Soy Beanery)

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside and was republished on The Bay Citizen.

You might also like:

John Scharffenberger: From Wine and Chocolate to Tofu

Fermented Food Fans: Meet The Folks From Cultured

Berkeley Bites: Tu David Phu, Saul’s Delicatessen

Berkeley Farmers’ Market Man, Ben Feldman

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheryl September 10, 2010 at 7:39 am

So happy to read this. I love tofu and lots of people just don’t “get” it. But prepared right and inventively, it’s really good stuff.

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Sarah Henry September 10, 2010 at 7:56 am

Well put, Sheryl.

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MarthaAndMe September 10, 2010 at 7:41 am

I would love to try tofu! I don’t think I’ve ever had really good tofu.

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Sarah Henry September 10, 2010 at 7:57 am

Well, now you know what to look for M&Me. And you might try with a simple recipe, like this one for baked tofu from Casey Barber at Good. Food. Stories. http://www.goodfoodstories.com/2010/09/08/crispy-baked-tofu/

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Jennifer Margulis September 10, 2010 at 10:41 am

I have questions about whether we should be eating more tofu. I’ve read that soy has its dark sides and is NOT actually good for young girls and women, because of the phytoestrogens? Do you know anything about that Sarah?
Jennifer Margulis´s last [type] ..Bankruptcy lawyers cash in- my new article in Oregon Business Magazine

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sarah henry September 10, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Hi Jennifer, I have seen reports on the potentially harmful side effects of soy — and just about every other food I eat, I might add. I tend to subscribe to the notion that a balanced diet of mostly unprocessed or minimally processed foods should stand you in good stead, though I’m sure some readers will take issue with such a relaxed approach.

I think the jury is still out on the scientific data at hand regarding soybeans, some folks swear it’s a wonder food, others point to dire health effects, including endocrine disruption that may lead to accelerated puberty or health concerns related to reproductive organs. Some claim it’s a breast cancer inhibitor, others say it may up your risk for that disease.

If you have any concerns about any food’s impact on your health, or that of your children, it’s always good to look at the research (and who’s behind it) and discuss with a trusted health or nutritional expert.

For my vegetarian son and I, tofu represent a palatable, complete protein that is part of a well-rounded diet. Soybeans are a traditional food with a long history in large, healthy populations of the world. As with most foods, looking for the freshest, least processed, and most pristine ingredients (raised organically, sustainably, not gentically modified etc.) makes sense to me. What do others think?

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi September 10, 2010 at 11:05 am

I suspect that never once in my life have I had good tofu.
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Friday Freebies- South Island Flowers

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Sarah Henry September 10, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Should I take from your comment, Melanie, that you’re not a fan?

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MyKidsEatSquid September 10, 2010 at 11:35 am

Surprisingly, my husband has been the one pushing for more tofu around our house. He keeps having it prepared in cool ways at restaurants but so far we haven’t mastered anything stellar at home with it. I’m going to check out Tsai’s recipes. I love the idea of taking a class in making tofu. Sadly, I don’t think there’s anything like that in my neck of the woods.

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Sarah Henry September 10, 2010 at 3:13 pm

Have the hubbie ask the folks who make the restaurant tofu he enjoys to give him the scoop on the dishes, MKES, or go with him and check ‘em out. I’m sure you could replicate a reasonable facsimile of same in your own good kitchen.

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Ruth Pennebaker September 10, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Glad to know I’m not the only person in the universe who’s tofu-averse. But at least I feel guilty about it.
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..Breast Cancer Journals- Part 5

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Sarah Henry September 10, 2010 at 3:15 pm

Curious, Ruth: Why the guilt? And, also, as a breast cancer survivor, wondering if the health issues around soybeans have ever been a factor in your aversion to this food? (See Jennifer’s comment and my response above.)

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Gavin T September 10, 2010 at 4:16 pm

What a great story, and what a great website!

I’ve eaten plenty of tofu in my life, here and in Japan. And let me tell you, Hodo Soy tofu was a revelation to me, the first time I ate it. It really is a good as Minh describes. It doesn’t need soy sauce or any dressing (although the prepared dishes Hodo Soy sells are absolutely delicious).

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Sarah Henry September 10, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Welcome Gavin, nice to see you here, and thanks for adding a first-hand report from the field.

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Alexandra September 10, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Tofu! I love it! I used to try and feed it to my dad. He said it tasted like scrambled eggs. I totally disagree. My husband doesn’t like tofu much either. I have it whenever we eat out. But, like Jennifer above, I’ve been reading about genetically modified soybeans and worry about which brands are okay. Every time I stop by your blog I end up wishing I lived in Berkeley. Would love to learn how to make tofu and applaud Tsai for his determination to improve on what is available at the supermarket. (Fascinating to read about his opinion of it being it water and plastic and how it needs to be fresh, etc.)
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Outer-Cape Biking Question from Jackie

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Sarah Henry September 10, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Hi Sandy, Thanks for passing on this link: http://www.cornucopia.org/soysurvey/
about a rating system of many of the commercially available tofu brands. I’d love to see the soy post you wrote, that you mentioned offline.

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Stephanie - Wasabimon September 11, 2010 at 12:02 am

I LOVE LOVE LOVE Hodo Soy. I buy their stuff all the time at the farmers market. Their fake eggs? I dream about them at night!
Stephanie – Wasabimon´s last [type] ..My Chicken Soup Recipe Is Better Than My Grandma’s

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Sarah Henry September 11, 2010 at 5:17 am

Hey Steph, Do you mean their tofu omelette? I could see how tofu (which pairs nicely with rice) and other soy products might well find its way into a gluten-free diet.

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Nancie McDermott September 11, 2010 at 8:40 am

What wonderful news — tofu carefully made by people who know it and love it, for a local market. (Not my local market of course, but all in good time on that.) One excellent point he makes is that in Asian kitchens, tofu exists not as a substitute for meat but as a food that has its own qualities. This doesn’t mean everybody who doesn’t care for it will now love it, but we can certainly spring it from meat-replacement jail and consider it as a food, and also consider how people who adore it and have been making it with care for centuries (millennia?) use it and enjoy it.

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Sarah Henry September 11, 2010 at 1:32 pm

All good points, Nancie, and coming from a person who has spent some time in tofu-loving countries in South-East Asia.

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Joy September 12, 2010 at 12:26 am

I’ve grown up eating tofu in various shapes and forms, and still absolutely love it. I am so glad to read about someone so passionate about it, who has noble goals of introducing people to real tofu for what it is, instead of being relegated as a “meat substitute” or “hippie food”.
Joy´s last [type] ..Dana Treat Scones- Sweet Dreams Are Made of Savory Cheese-Dill

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Sarah Henry September 12, 2010 at 6:47 am

Hey Joy, Nice to find you here and thanks for adding your personal perspective. And now I think I want to click on that link to those delicious sounding scones.

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Merr September 12, 2010 at 11:49 am

I always like to hear that a chef is looking for ways to make tofu, as I see it, more mainstream. Because that means it will taste great! Nice to read about it here.
Merr´s last [type] ..The 5-Question Literary Agent Interview- Jenny Bent

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Sarah Henry September 12, 2010 at 2:34 pm

It’s funny to think of “mainstreaming” tofu — though I do understand what you mean — but for millions of folks in different cultures with varied diets, tofu is already mainstream.

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Melanie Haiken September 13, 2010 at 9:04 am

You had me with the idea of artisanal tofu; I love tofu for health benefits but don’t always love the taste and texture. But tea-infused tofu? That’s just really fascinating. Can’t wait!

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Sarah Henry September 14, 2010 at 6:04 am

Am sure the infused bean blocks will attract a lot of interest when they hit the markets and shelves, Melanie.

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