A confession: I’m an Asian American food writer and I’ve never liked tofu. It’s true. The all-important protein, which sustained ancient Asian civilizations for centuries, quite frankly, bores me. Tofu served in saucy, stir-fried dishes? Ho hum. Deep-fried tofu? Eh. Raw tofu? Yeah, right. Then, I visited San Jose Tofu Company, a nondescript shop in Northern California that makes tofu by hand.
At the locally loved hole-in-the-wall factory in San Jose’s Japantown, the barely there kitchen is decorated with two metal vats and stacked wooden crates. “Don’t worry,” an older Japanese woman says. “This tofu is so delicious.” She praises the soy milk, testifying that it provides an inexplicable energy boost and has replaced her morning coffee.
A teenage girl in flip-flops trots in toting a plastic container, which owner Chester Nozaki fills with shiny, wet tofu. I wonder what a teenager does with fresh tofu. “I eat it raw sprinkled with soy sauce and bonito flakes,” she says. “It’s so yummy!” A middle-aged Asian man standing nearby agrees and says, “It’s the best tofu around. My father used to buy it from this place since I was a kid and I’m still coming here to get my fix.” I throw down $6.50 and walk out with two blocks of tofu and two quarts of soy milk, looking like I just won a goldfish at a carnival.
My taste buds were stunned. This was like no other tofu I had ever eaten: silky, mild, slightly nutty and unbelievably fresh. Instead of the chalky texture of packaged tofu or the leathery blocks sitting in a water barrel, this reminded me of fine goat cheese, smooth and creamy. No weird bean aftertaste, just pure gossamer perfection.
I devoured those blocks raw — raw! — with soy sauce and a few drops of sesame and chili oil over the next two days. If heaven’s serving fresh bean curd, then I’m born again.
Tofu’s Long Road
The soy curd has been made by China’s Han Dynasty as far back as 206 years before the birth of Christ. According to legend, a Chinese chef accidentally threw in calcium sulfate, a natural derivative of sea salt, in an attempt to flavor puréed soybean. It curdled up and voilá! Tofu.
Chinese family businesses began to sell tofu and soy milk locally and its popularity spread via visiting Japanese priests who brought tofu recipes back home. In the late 19th century, the influx of Chinese immigrants to the United States transported the tofu-making tradition to Northern California, where soybean processing factories were built — Wo Sing & Co. being the first in 1878 — to feed an increasing demand. San Francisco’s Quong Hop & Co. was founded at the turn of the 20th century and is the oldest existing tofu maker in America today. In 1958, packaged tofu first hit US supermarket shelves.
How do these little round soybeans end up as wobbly, white blocks? Amazingly, nearly the same way they did 2,000 years ago. Dried soybeans are soaked overnight and ground. This extracts liquid, also known as “soy milk.” The fibrous byproduct, okara in Japanese, gets sold or given away to tofu customers; Koreans call it “bee gee” and use the coarse white flakes in a hearty kimchi stew. The milk is heated and a coagulant (the calcium sulfate) is added. The resulting curds are broken up and packed into wooden boxes stretched with porous cloths. Large weights (and I’m talking so insanely heavy that I couldn’t move one even an inch) are placed on top to drain the excess water. Finally, the blocks are cut into cubes and stored in cool water. That’s it. Well, sort of.
“Tofu is 98 percent science, but the two percent that’s art is more nuanced,” says Minh Tsai, founder of Hodo Soy in Oakland, CA. “What’s the right temperature of the milk to make silken tofu? What will make the liquid coagulate exactly how you want it turn out with the perfect texture and flavor?”
This two percent coagulation factor sets incredible tofu apart from the mediocre. Commercially produced silken tofu is made with a synthetic coagulant that works 10 times faster, which also makes it harder to control, Tsai says.
Shelf life is also a factor. Natural soy proteins don’t last very long, so tofu has a short shelf life (something I discovered the hard way, after I had to throw out two expired blocks of tofu). San Jose Tofu Company’s handmade tofu must be eaten within a few days. Hodo Soy’s tofu, which is produced using a partly mechanized production, lasts one week. Packaged tofu uses a thinner, more diluted soy milk (hence, less protein) and can go for a month or longer. But what you gain in shelf life, you lose in flavor and texture.
With the exception of South Korea-based Pulmuone (recently merged with Wildwood Tofu of California), soy products in Asia are still made the old-fashioned way: by small, family-owned businesses right in their shops or at home in their kitchens, hand-stirring the milk and pouring it into wooden crates, then selling it straight to the customer.
Handmade tofu was part of Tsai’s everyday life in Vietnam. He recalls bustling breakfast stalls lining the streets, selling sticky rice, tofu and sweet soy milk. “My grandfather and I would go for a stroll every morning and bring breakfast back for the family,” he says. “It was our daily routine.”
Tsai remembers one family who made all its tofu at home, including laboriously grinding the soybeans by hand. “I remember that burnt smell of the soy milk as they stirred it over a burning stove. Then, they would pour it through a cloth, add sugar to the sieved liquid and sell the soy milk steaming fresh. The tofu wouldn’t be ready until the afternoon, after the milk had been curdled and the curds pressed between wooden slats.”
The fantastic aroma of fresh soy stayed with Tsai even after he came to the United States. After searching the United States for 20 years, he still couldn’t find good tofu. “I wanted it like the way I remembered,” he says.
Tsai opened Hodo Soy in 2004. Different from the typical mom-and-pop tofu maker, Tsai’s company sources organic and non-genetically modified soybeans and utilizes shiny, new machines. “But we still maintain the old-world processes. We just make it cleaner,” he says, referring to the sometimes-questionable sanitation of handmade (read: hand-touched) tofu. “We’ve just mechanized the measuring, scooping, grinding and handling of the beans.”
Like most small tofu shops, Tsai keeps his product local, refusing to sell beyond the San Francisco Bay Area because he doesn’t want to change his tofu to make it in mass quantities or to last longer on the shelves. “I’ll sell to wider areas if we expanded and set up production in those places,” he says. “That way, the tofu is still the same fresh, locally made product I make in Oakland. I won’t skimp on quality.”
The Future of Tofu
Most Americans only know the packaged stuff. It’s supposedly very good for us, so we mold it into different shapes and squish it into our diet — frying it up or stuffing it into sausage casings to replicate hot dogs (love those vegan barbecues). Everyone wants to love tofu, but nobody puts it on their what-I’d-want-to-eat-if-it-was-my-last-day-on-Earth list. Is there a practical place for the commercial variety of tofu in the United States?
“I think it’s great because people still don’t know what to do with tofu,” Tsai says. “The tofu industry is not dissimilar to the latest artisan rage over chocolate, olive oil and bread. There’s room for both the big guys, who get the product and information out to a lot of people, and the little guys, who encourage the big guys to make better products.”
The proof is in the customers. Over the years, Nozaki’s customer base has diversified to include more Asians, Latinos, blacks and whites from around the Bay Area. “I have no idea how they are preparing it, but I just know they are buying a lot of it,” he says.
A Dying Art
Nozaki and his wife, Amy, run their operation 20 hours a day, almost every single day, beginning at 1 a.m. The only machine they use is a bean grinder. One batch of tofu takes an hour from start to finish, but they make multiple batches throughout the day so that the block you are walking out with is only minutes old.
That’s why you have to get there in the morning. There’s only so much they can make, and it’s first come, first served. “We just use our intuition on how much we need for the day,” Nozaki says. “It’s the wrong way to do business, but that’s how my grandfather did it.” They sell out every day.
Like any passionate artisan, Nozaki is proud of his craft. “In the beginning, I loved the heavy labor involved,” he says. “Lifting 120-pound batches of tofu, setting soybean paste into a steaming, hot tank of water without letting it splash. But we’re getting old now and it’s taking a physical toll on us. Hopefully, someone in the family will approach us about taking [the business] over.”
Meanwhile, his customers keep coming each day just to get one more taste of a glorious, ancient art form.
Susan C. Kim has written on food, travel, home design and the environment for The New York Times, Time magazine, Sunset magazine and Coastal Living.