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.
Tsai is not only a cheerleader for the many potential uses of his organic tofu, but a wise tofu guru, as well. Although he is focused on growing Hodo Soy, he sees value in promoting high quality tofu across America and generously offers to teach people to start their own tofu companies. During the question and answer period, a woman asked about tofu donuts that she had tried in Japan. Tsai encouraged her to start her own pop-up and even offered his help.
Lee likened an appreciation of the many variations in tofu to that of cheese and asked Tsai how to encourage consumers to become equally sophisticated and snobby about soybean curds. "What words can they use?" she asked. Tsai responded, “fresh, buttery, creamy, beany.”
At the end of the discussion, three notable local chefs, clearly fans and loyal customers of Hodo, Brandon Jew of Mister Jiu’s, Annie Somerville of Greens and Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions and The Progress joined the pair to further sing the praises of cooking with tofu and introduce their dishes, which had attendees salivating in anticipation.
Somerville who started Greens restaurant in 1981, commented, ”We’ve served tofu from day one and had used another organic brand. When a friend insisted I try Hodo, I met Tsai back in 2004 at the Ferry Plaza Market and started using his products. I support his efforts, and especially think that with all the attention to climate change, this is an especially good time to explore tofu’s potential.”
Stuart Brioza who admitted to having a “tofu-disconnect” in his youth, is especially enthusiastic about using yuba (soy milk skin). “It is an amazing entrance into tofu; it caused me to totally rethink tofu. I have so many vegan friends and have also explored tofu in its places of origin such as Kyoto’s Buddhist monasteries. I appreciate its sophistication and we serve it at both restaurants.”
After the dialogue’s conclusion, attendees lined up at four stations to sample the tofu treats prepared by the chefs.
Hodo Soy’s own offering is what comes to mind when you think of tofu: minimalist white cubes; but these were topped with delicate dots of preserved yuzu kosho, edamame puree and umeboshi.
Brandon Jew made his own creamy silken tofu out of Hodo’s soy milk and riffed on the classic mapo tofu with an explosion of spicy flavors in his rib eye cap sauce, with fermented black beans, bean paste and chilis.
Stuart Brioza had two offerings: cold yuba noodles with toasted quinoa, yuzu pickled mushrooms and tahini-chili oil. And a silken soy milk tofu topped with manila clams and pickled ramps in rice wine vinegar, topped with ramp oil, aged tamari and micro greens.
Annie Somerville of Greens contributed a colorful, classic tofu dish, that still delivers a refreshing punch: fresh spring rolls with firm tofu, vegetable medley, rice noodles, mint, and a crunchy coconut peanut topping.
Past Tasting Menu events have included last year’s homage to the venerable pork belly. Upcoming events for this year include Flowering Teas (where you can create your own blend) on June 29, and a Philippine Feast on August 17.
In a subsequent interview, Minh Tsai added, " Hodo is at a very pivotal time and place for the good food, craft food movement. The story of Hodo tells us a lot about American culture and food. Like many other craft food makers in the US have done over the past few decades, I set out to recreate elusive memory, recapture a lost art. I wanted to make something that could not be found here. But I knew it existed in another place, other countries. So I knew that people here were missing something. But I also recognize that for tofu/yuba to grow, I will need to continue to innovate and collaborate with chefs."
Tim Hall of the Asian Art Museum adds, “the goal of our Tasting Menu programs is to find access points for discovery, connections, and links that foster cultural empathy.”