Walk into any museum, and one of the first items you are likely to spot is a posted warning, a stern reminder not to consume any foods or beverages within its hallowed halls. Last Thursday night, however, visitors to the marble galleries of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum were met with welcoming signs promising savory tastings ahead. The event, entitled Reclaiming Tofu, was part of the museum’s two-year old Tasting Menu program, which Tim Hallman, Director of Communications & Business Development, describes as “exploring the connections between art and dining.”
“At the Asian Art Museum,” Hallman says, “we believe that food — just like art — is a beautiful way to share culture. Many of the artworks in our collection are related to food, and the museum is located in the heart of an incredibly dynamic culinary environment—one with deep influences from Asian cuisine. These factors make us a perfect venue for fostering dialogues on the creative elements of edible traditions—both local and global.”
Attendees at the sold-out event on Thursday night were treated to a lively hour-long dialogue on the journey of the 2000-year old bean curd between Minh Tsai, founder of Hodo Soy, and Jennifer 8. Lee, a former New York Times reporter, producer of the film “The Search for General Tso” and the author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.
Inspired by the fresh tofu he remembered enjoying with his grandfather in Vietnam, Tsai started a small, artisanal tofu-making business in 2004 with six cousins as partners. He began by trying to educate the palates of customers and get feedback from them at a single Farmers Market. The vicissitudes of running the small business discouraged his cousins who all bailed out. But Tsai persevered. And now he counts 700 stores and restaurants that stock his tofu products, including Chipotle and Sweet Greens, which he supplies from his West Oakland beanery. Increasingly, and perhaps even of more value, respected chefs from singular restaurants are exploring the spectrum of flavors and textures in Hodo’s premium products.
With Lee’s prompts, Tsai discussed the unfortunate introduction of tofu in the US. back in the 70’s. The soft, jiggly bean curd was seen purely as a cheap, plant-based protein for vegetarians, and sold in big plastic tubs for $1.99. As a straight-up, meat-substitute, people tried grilling it alongside burgers, but it fell through the grill's gaps. That led to the “American invention of extra firm tofu” whose dense texture, Tsai describes, actually precluded it from absorbing the flavors of whatever sauce it was paired with, “leaving just a weird chalky taste.” In actuality, in most Asian cuisines, classic tofu dishes combine tofu and meat ingredients.