KQED's San Jose: The Bay Area's Great Immigrant Food City is a series of stories exploring San Jose's wonderfully diverse immigrant food scene. A new installment will post each weekday from Oct. 20–29.
an Jose is America’s tofu capital, and nowhere else comes close. Soy milk curds have been strained and pressed in the South Bay since the early 20th century, but it’s not San Jose’s long history with tofu that earns it the title: It’s the diversity, freshness and convenience of the tofu on offer throughout the area in restaurants, supermarkets and an uncommonly large number of dedicated tofu storefronts.
To put San Jose’s embarrassment of bean curd riches in perspective, San Francisco has only one dedicated tofu storefront to its name—Chinatown’s reliably inexpensive Wo Chong. Megacities like Los Angeles or New York might eke out a technical numerical victory, but San Jose comes out on top when calculating tofu wealth on a per capita basis: With its population of a little over one million, the city still manages to sustain a diverse and lucrative soybean scene that can go toe to toe with any place in America. By my count, San Jose is home to at least 10 outlets specializing in fresh tofu, catering to a dedicated clientele of workers looking for a hot snack, home cooks picking up tonight’s dinner and local restaurateurs stocking up on their supply.
The tofu in the Bay’s U-bend covers a wide swath of traditions and cultures: At US SoyPresso, Japanese-style tofu pudding is topped with soy milk and sweet beans. At Taiwanese Sogo Tofu, it is deep fried in “biandang” lunchbox-sized pieces. And at Vietnamese Thanh Son Tofu, it can be ordered tucked inside a banh mi.
Today, the dominant style of tofu in San Jose is Vietnamese, with a half-dozen strip-mall tofu delicatessens like Thanh Son clustered in a small stretch of San Jose’s heavily Vietnamese East Side, with additional outposts spread out across the city.
This wasn’t always the case, though. As documented in William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi's exhaustive history of tofu making, the first tofu shops in San Jose came with the earliest Japanese American immigrants, who settled in the Santa Clara Valley to work as farm laborers. Okumura Tofu-ya, founded in 1906, was the first recorded tofu business in the city. It was located on 6th Street, smack dab in the middle of Japantown, and the neighborhood would have at least one tofu maker or another for more than a hundred years until the last one closed in 2017. Tofu shops like Okumura spread wherever there were Japanese immigrants in the U.S.; by 1950, at least 425 Japanese tofu businesses had been established throughout the country.
The Japanese American community’s grip on tofu started loosening in the late 20th century as the population aged and shrunk relative to other Asian American groups. By then, the growth of tofu shops had slowed if not regressed; they had become redundant after the invention of packaged tofu in Los Angeles in the ‘50s, which enabled the ingredient to be sold in supermarkets instead of specialty stores. In some cities, these developments spelled the end of the tofu shop—but in San Jose, they would live on in the hands of a new population that arrived in the city after 1975 in large numbers: Vietnamese immigrants.
In the subsequent decades, Vietnamese Americans would create their own kind of tofu shop, one that sells bean curd alongside a wide variety of snacks and drinks in a deli-like format, and usher in a new tofu renaissance in the South Bay. Vietnamese tofu delis now make up the majority of tofu businesses in San Jose. But despite the delis’ omnipresence—it feels like no Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose is complete without a fresh tofu maker nearby—they rarely get the same level of mainstream recognition as other neighborhood institutions like pho restaurants and banh mi takeout joints. Nevertheless, they play just as essential a role in the community and are just as valuable a part of San Jose’s culinary landscape.
For the loyal customers these delis serve, the prepackaged stuff sold in grocery stores is no substitute for what their local tofu store can offer. Andrea Nguyen, an authority on Vietnamese cooking and the author of an entire book on tofu, is a longtime customer of tofu delis. “Americans want tofu to be sturdy,” she says about Safeway refrigerator aisle tofu, “whereas the tofu that you buy at an Asian tofu shop, whether that's Japanese, Chinese or Vietnamese, tends to be more tender because we love that tenderness. That tenderness means that the curds are not as compressed and they suck up flavor.“
It’s a difference that customers can feel—literally. Nguyen claims it is a Vietnamese American habit to poke at the Saran-wrapped tofu on display to check for quality, “like you’re poking the belly of the Pillsbury Doughboy.” Good Vietnamese tofu should, like a soft cheese, threaten to fall apart into airy curls with the slightest pressure.
The texture is one that many Americans might not be familiar with, as Japanese and Chinese–style firm tofu dominates the grocery aisle. Aside from the creamy kind that’s only used for pudding, Vietnamese bean curd comes in one, ricotta-esque consistency. Vietnamese tofu makers play up this textural quality by using a different process than Japanese and Chinese artisans. Instead of using nigari or gypsum, they use the leftover “whey” from straining the last batch to thicken the soy milk into curds. While it cools, they leave it to set loosely in a bread pan-sized trough instead of, say, subjecting it to the wooden press of Japanese tofu making.
This process produces a softer, wispier tofu than rival methods, highlighting the supple mouthfeel that makes the ingredient a desirable addition to Vietnamese soups, stir-fries and noodles. It also doesn’t turn tofu into anything resembling ersatz meat—intentionally so, because Vietnamese cuisine, like most Asian food cultures, doesn’t only treat tofu as a meat substitute. Sometimes tofu can be a velvety complement to the savoriness of meat.
But it’s not just the culinary superiority of the fresh stuff that draws Vietnamese Americans to their tofu delis, says Nguyen. “People like fresh tofu because it's part of the food traditions. We're a relatively new immigrant refugee community to America, and there has been so much foodcraft, transported and translated to American soil from Vietnam. We value freshness. We also value the community that forms around that freshness—you feel in touch with your people and your soul when you go to these delis.”
hanh Son Tofu, a prominent Vietnamese tofu deli located near Lee’s Supermarket on Senter Road, is a good example of how these stores can be an anchor for the community. The shop has been around for three decades now, according to Anh Nguyen, a member of the family who owns the store. The Thanh Son Nguyens were a traditional tofu making family in Vietnam until the Fall of Saigon, after which they fled their country. Reaching America without anything to their name, they resumed making and selling tofu to their new neighbors in Southern California’s Orange County through the ‘70s and ‘80s. Eventually, they saved enough capital to open their first storefront in Westminster’s Little Saigon in the ‘90s—and that operation was successful enough that a cousin who lived in San Jose wanted to open a Northern California location with the same name.
Today, Thanh Son is one of the busiest tofu delis in the neighborhood. The storefront, spacious and buzzing with commotion, sports stainless steel counters and see-through refrigerators packed with green-tinted pandan soy milk, golden fried tofu, yuba sheets rolled up in an imitation of chả lụa ham and soy pudding with bright noodles of fruit jelly. A long line of customers wraps around the counters. They point at their preferred soybean product behind the glass, the staff bags it up, and then they head to the register to pay and receive their gelatinous treats.
It’s no accident that Thanh Son does brisk business. Tofu this fresh doesn’t last more than a few days in a refrigerator, so customers need to come back regularly for their fix. That also means the store needs to refresh its stock regularly, so the staff makes most of its inventory from scratch every morning—all of which will be gone by the afternoon.
The store also sells a wide variety of packaged snacks and goodies like bánh bèo (shrimp-dusted rice cakes), nem chua (tangy rolls of raw fermented pork) and bánh bò nướng (pandan-flavored “honeycomb” cakes)—some made by Thanh Son staff, some sourced from smaller local producers, but all very addictive. These snacks are piled up on every available inch of counter and shelf space, giving the deli a lively, market hall feel.
It’s the kind of store that can be found all over Vietnamese American enclaves, from Houston to Los Angeles, but, crucially, not in Vietnam. These delis are uniquely a diaspora phenomenon. “When I have seen tofu vendors in Vietnam, they’re just selling tofu, sometimes soy milk, too. But the whole thing about these delis serving other dishes and having a menu, that’s the next level of Vietnamese American-ness,” says Andrea Nguyen, the cookbook author. The fusion of the Vietnamese tofu market stall with the German-Jewish-American delicatessen is an adaptation of one shopping culture to another, a synthesis encouraged along by the generous real estate of the California strip mall.
Thanh Son isn’t the only kind of Vietnamese tofu deli that’s out there. Some, like Binh Minh (1180 Tully Road) or Hung Vuong (1741 Berryessa Road), serve only vegetarian food, in accordance with a Buddhist monk’s diet. Not all Vietnamese Buddhists are vegetarian, but many do observe a vegetarian diet on occasion as an act of religious piety. These Buddhist delis have a slightly different format than their non-vegetarian peers, with a greater focus on hot prepared meals and, of course, the presence of lots of Buddhist tchotchkes on sale.
Dong Phuong Tofu is a longstanding example of this alternative format; it has stood across from Lion Market in the heart of San Jose’s Little Saigon for almost two decades. There are meditation CDs and Buddhist scripture posters for sale at the doorway, and a small selection of specialty groceries like vegetarian fish sauce and pork floss displayed on a wooden island in the middle of the store. At the front, hungry patrons dawdle trying to decide between the two dozen dishes in the hot food counter tubs as well as everything else on the large menu of made-to-order food tacked up on the wall.
The star attractions are the meatless stir-fries, rice noodles and other mealtime staples at the hot food counter. The staff at Dong Phuong make the tofu for these dishes on site, which gives its lemongrass tofu, for example, a springy chew that other restaurants can’t pull off.
While some vegetarian diets, like those of brahminical Hindus or white American hippies, shy away from the close imitation of meat, East Asian vegetarianism doesn’t have such scruples. Some of the double-take-inducing dishes on display at the hot counter include seitan “fish” battered, deep fried and coated in a brown sauce, as well as a pork belly clay pot where the “belly” has convincing stripes of konjac jelly “fat.” Some of the seitan is made in the kitchen, but the most convincing meat substitutes are sourced from specialized Asian fake-meat producers, who have been operating on the continent long before the Impossible Burger was an idea in a Stanford biochemist’s head.
The quick service counter at delis such as Dong Phuong plug an important hole in the market, providing convenient and tasty meals at a price better than sit-down vegetarian places like Green Lotus, which is just across the street. Plus the quality of the food doesn’t suffer despite sitting out for most of the day: Tofu and seitan dishes only suck up more flavor during a long marination time.
n a recent Saturday, I visited both Thanh Son and Dong Phuong to assemble a three-course, under $20, all-tofu lunch, with the former providing an appetizer (fried tofu) and dessert (ginger tofu pudding), and the latter providing the entree (lemongrass tofu with rice noodles). Afterwards, I sat on the lip of the Grand Century mall fountain, set out my assorted tofu, and thought about how lucky the neighborhood is to have this abundance. In a lopsided American food system that gives artisanal food to the rich and the processed scraps to the poor, fresh tofu is the rare luxury that remains stubbornly affordable, able to be enjoyed by all.
As I ate, I couldn’t stop thinking of the melancholy note on which my conversation with Nguyen ended: “I think that we take for granted what is available in these enclaves,” she mused. “Because I think, my God, how lucky are we to be in America and be standing here, waiting in line to buy this tofu that's been freshly made. It’s not the same as going to buy it on a wet market in Vietnam, but gosh darn it, it's a very similar experience. I think about the many depths of these experiences. And I said to myself: How fucking lucky am I? How long is that going to last?“
More San Jose Food
Nguyen points out that young Vietnamese Americans usually aren’t the ones behind the register at these tofu shops, but an older generation of first wave immigrants. She’s worried that the graying of the community might spell an end for the tofu. There’s some precedent for this in San Jose: The last tofu maker in Japantown, San Jose Tofu Company, closed three years ago after the retirement of its owners.
But perhaps tofu will survive in San Jose like it always has. Hodo Soy, the buzzy, high-end tofu factory now based in Oakland, got its start in the South Bay. The company is owned by Minh Tsai, whose parents would bring him to traditional tofu stands in Vietnam when he was a child. Tsai started making the product for his new brand at Sogo Tofu, San Jose’s only Taiwanese tofu makers, and his dense style of tofu still betrays a strong Chinese influence. And when it came time to introduce his line to a wider audience, he opted for Japanese terminology, like “yuba” for tofu skins.
Maybe the next generation of South Bay tofu entrepreneurs will be more like Tsai: multicultural in emphasis, reflecting the diverse history of tofu making in San Jose itself. Still, what’s lost in the hype is that companies like Hodo stand on the shoulders of the humble strip mall tofu shops, which have been making fresh bean curd with care and sophistication, and with little fanfare, long before mainstream America deemed the product worthy of fine-dining menus. Let’s keep their memory alive, too.
Correction: This article originally stated that Minh Tsai's father was a tofu maker. He was not.
Adesh Thapliyal is KQED Arts' Editorial Intern. Previously, he wrote for the experimental newsletter Tone Glow and the pop music blog The Singles Jukebox.
Mai Ly and Truc Tran provided interpretation for this story.
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