Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Behind the Scenes at Hodo Soy Beanery

Hodo Soy is a testament to what one guy will do for good tofu.

The fresh organic tofu products can be found under the bright yellow-and-white canopies at Bay Area farmers’ markets. Since 2004, the small company has tried to cast tofu as a cool and tasty product in the Bay Area’s food scene; its workers offer up free samples or gladly spend time talking to you about the wonders of soy.

The company was started by Minh Tsai, who grew up in Vietnam but came to the United States when he was 11. Working in finance, Tsai and his friends would get together for home-cooked meals, but often felt frustrated at the lack of good, fresh tofu like he remembered eating as a child in Vietnam. Long story short, he connected with some tofu-making relatives and Hodo Soy was born.

In just five years, Hodo Soy has established itself as a high-end organic tofu maker and this month opened a new 10,000-square-foot production plant in West Oakland. The new facility will be open to public tours in December to continue Hodo Soy’s mission of tofu education.

Growing up Asian, I already understood the benefits and beauty of fresh tofu. So I jumped at the chance to go on a preview tour of the new plant to see first hand how beans turned into tofu.

Hodo Soy renovated the former candy factory and bakery into a beanery, installing equipment from one of the oldest tofu-equipment makers in Asia. In the visitors’ room, Hodo Soy plans to show a video about the tofu-making process and give you a peek at the production through a glass window. Above, Dean Ku, a co-founder and marketing director, gives the lay of the land as one guest looks on. (We then donned the requisite hairnets and plastic booties to enter the production floor, which is something the public tours won’t be able to do.)

Here’s the founder Minh Tsai, who also has the title of tofu master. A charming and affable guy, Tsai explained how Hodo Soy uses dried soybeans from a supplier in the Midwest as the starting point for their tofu products.

The soybeans are soaked overnight in filtered water and then ground into a pulp. One of the first products extracted from the puree through a steam-injection process is the soymilk, which is the basis for the tofu Hodo Soy makes. We got to try a cup of fresh soymilk that was unsweetened. In its natural state, the milk had a nice nuttiness to it that gave it lots of body. We also tried fresh yuba, which is also known as “tofu skin” because it’s made by steaming the soymilk and pulling off the thin top layer, or skin, that forms.

Fresh yuba is an expensive ingredient in Asia because of the labor involved in making it. Hodo Soy is the only U.S. manufacturer making and selling it fresh. (Most Asian stores sell it in dried form.) The yuba on this day was so fresh that we could still see the milk around the edges. Of course, when you buy the yuba at the farmers market stand, the yuba has been allowed to air out a bit and then sealed in its packaging.

Here are the yuba sheets being drip dried at the plant. Hodo Soy’s yuba is served in such restaurants as Coi, Greens and The Slanted Door.

Making tofu actually is very similar to cheese-making because it involves curds. In one section of the plant, workers laid out cheesecloth-lined molds that are filled with the soy curds, which are then pressed by this huge assembly line machine. The amount of pressure determines the texture of the resulting tofu—medium or firm. (Soft tofu, or silken tofu, is so delicate to make that Tsai says he has to do that by hand.)

The tofu blocks are then cut up and stored in water so it can be sold at the farmers markets. Tsai says that all the employees who work at the plant also spend time at the farmers market selling the products. So you really do meet the people who make what you buy. It also gives the workers a chance to hear feedback about their tofu.

In the back of the plant is a kitchen, and it’s not just where the workers take their lunch break. Hodo Soy has a chef who develops recipes and creates cooked products that are packaged and sold at the farmers market.

At the end of the tour, we got to sample a table full of tofu dishes, including some sautéed tofu pockets, poached tofu, tofu croquettes and stir-fry tofu noodles. I especially liked the croquettes, which tasted surprisingly light and not at all dense.

With this new and bigger plant, Hodo Soy can now extend its reach beyond the farmers markets. But because Tsai and his team are so focused on quality and freshness, they’re carefully negotiating with retailers and distributors, working out issues such as shelf life, etc. For now, Hodo Soy can be found at Rainbow Grocery and possibly down the road at the Berkeley Bowl.

If you’re interested in tofu and want to talk to people who love it, then I’d suggest you stop by one of the Hodo Soy stands at the farmers markets (you can check where they are on their Web site). And if you want to take a tour of the West Oakland plant, check back at their Web site later this year for more information.

Hodo Soy Beanery, 2923 Adeline St., Oakland. www.hodosoy.com

Get your tofu on:
Yuba Salad with Broccoli and Red Bellpepper
Spicy Blue Lake Bean Salad with Tofu
Rainbow Tofu Soup


Cookie said...

When I first came to the US, barely anyone outside of the Asian community knew what Tofu was. I just can't believe how widely known it is and how many non-Asian people love it nowadays! Even my carnivore honey loves Mapo Tofu!

Hungry Dog said...

How cool that you got to do this! I definitely want to take a tour when they open to the public, and I will look for their tofu at the farmer's market.

Carolyn Jung said...

Uh hemmmm, tofu croquette? Would that be a FRIED item?? =)

Single Guy Ben said...

Cookie, I love mapo tofu too!

HD, you should check them out. But I should warn you that they're on the pricey side. But you're paying for organic freshness!

Carolyn, um, I only ate half because it was a taste test so in theory I had to taste it to test it! ;-) And really, it didn't taste fried at all. Can they bake croquettes?

agent713 said...

I love factory tours. This one sounds fascinating. Great pictures!

3 hungry tummies said...

thanks for the story, now i'm really going to do my 1 week tofu challenge

Unknown said...

wow! I would love to do a tour of this place.