The Tofu Master Speaks…

Hodo Tofu Master, Founder and CEO, Minh Tsai, will use this blog to write about all things tofu, the artisan food business and running a socially-responsible business.

Firm Tofu – An American Invention

March 20th, 2013

While tofu has been consumed in Asia for centuries, nobody knows exactly when tofu was first brought to America. Tofu started making an inroad into the US in the 1800s through the early 1900s when masses of Chinese came to work as coolies and railroad builders. However, it was not until the 1970s that tofu gained popularity outside of the Asian community here.

Tofu was truly introduced to the American public in the early 1970s by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, through their seminal book, The Book of Tofu. The publication of this book coincided with the rise of the Green Revolution, which led many Americans to adopt a plant-based diet. Tofu became the “poster” food — a meat substitute that is healthier and kinder to the environment.

Because tofu is frequently referred to as a meat substitute, people new to tofu expected tofu’s texture to be similar to that of meat and were generally quite surprised when they came across tofu in Asian grocery stores. What they encountered was a jiggly, jello-like white block so soft that it would fall through their BBQ! And they absolutely did not know what to do with it!

As such, tofu failed the “meat substitute” test. So, what do we do as Americans? We innovate!
The resulting product was a “firm” tofu that can withstand the grill, the frying pan and the smoker. The solution was simple enough; wrap the soft tofu in a paper towel and press the water out of it with some weight, a can or two of beans are typically recommended. If you peruse through any tofu cookbook written between 1975 and1990, chances are that you will find instructions to do just that in the first chapter of the book.
Little did we know that in creating the firm tofu, we also created a tofu that is less tasty and much harder to flavor!

Why? Here is where I wear my “Alton Brown hat” and explain the science of tofu. Unlike meat, tofu’s matrix of protein and water do not bind the same way as meat protein. This rather weak matrix forces tofu to leach water constantly. A block of tofu gets firmer with time as it pushes water out. Hence, tofu does not absorb flavors like meat does!

But, firm tofu is here to stay, and we want to help you learn how to use it to make great dishes. Here are some tips for choosing and working with firm tofu.
Tip 1 – Look for tofu that is medium firm and has a high protein level (Hodo tofu has 17g of protein per serving, the highest in the industry at twice the average market brand).
Tip 2 – Slice tofu into thin strips to expose as much surface area as possible when cooking. The surface area is where flavors stick!
Tip 3 – Fry firm tofu to get a sponge-like texture that will absorb sauce easily. We make our nuggets by frying tofu and braising it in 5-spice and curry sauces.
Tip 4 – Crumble firm tofu to make scrambles, or salads (like our v-EGG-an salad), or the braised tofu Sofritas at Chipotle!

Until the next blog….happy tofu cooking!

Tofu versus Soy Protein Isolate – like Fresh-Squeezed Orange Juice versus Tang

February 14th, 2013

“Soy”, the word conjures up so many images, from healthy and delicious tofu, to hand lotions and fire-fighting foam.

The humble soy bean is so versatile that its properties can be used in just about anything and everything today. But this was not always the case.

Soybeans were originally grown solely for consumption just like many other bean varieties (e.g., pinto beans, garbanzo bean, black beans). It was consumed as a whole bean by East Asians in the form of tofu. For thousands of years, tofu consumption spread from China to Japan and other Southeast Asia countries; it was consumed not only for its protein-rich nutrition but also for its wonderful taste.

Fast forward to the 1936, a brilliant American chemist named Percy Julian found a way to extract the protein from soy and use it as a functional ingredient for paper coating.  Dr. Julian built the first soy protein isolate extraction plant, and soy protein isolate was used in many products from paint to textile fiber. His discovery of soy protein isolate for non-food functional uses, unfortunately, eventually led us back to food. Click here for a great PBS documentary on Dr. Julian.

Soy protein isolate made its way back to food in 1959. This highly processed form of soy, was used to manipulate the textures of meat products, to augment protein level in processed foods, and to function as an emulsifier. Today, in your supermarket aisle, you can find soy protein isolates in salad dressings, soups, fake meats, infant formula, breads, cereals, and supplements. It remains one of the cheapest processed proteins.

Tofu, on the other hand, has been made in the same way it had been made over the past several thousand years — whole soy beans are soaked, ground, then cooked.  Soy milk is squeezed out from the cooked soy pulp, then a mineral coagulant (like rennet in cheese-making) is added to turn the milk into curd. And finally, just like cheese, the curds are pressed into various textures and formed into various shape.

At Hodo, we maintain this same artisanal approach to making tofu. Our tofu just tastes better because we use thicker and richer soy milk (I will write another blog on why our tofu is uniquely different on what’s out there in the marketplace later). I liken it to making cheese with whole cow milk instead of using watered-down cow milk. By not skimping on quality, quantity and the purity of ingredients and by using a traditional approach, we  make better tasting tofu. Here is a link to a video on how we make tofu.

Next time you pick up a “soy” product that is not tofu, chances are the food and its packaging have the same ingredient — soy protein isolate.


The Good Beans Blog

February 1st, 2013

We have been blogging over the last half decade or so, sharing the adventures of growing Hodo and spreading our beans.  Visit The Good Beans Blog to read Hodo’s history as a Bay Area food innovator, the amazing dishes that local, notable restaurants are creating with our tofu and celebrity chefs and foodierati sightings at our Beanery.