MORE THAN A HILL OF BEANS: Hodo Soy Beanery Opens New Factory in West Oakland

TASTY TOFU — An employee (above left) checks sheets of yuba, which is formed as a skin on the surface of warmed soy milk. The skins are hung to dry on racks much like pasta. Hodo Soy Beanery founder Minh Tsai (above right) holds re-hydrated organic soybeans, which come from a farming co-op in the Midwest. photos by Vivien Kim Thorp/Nichi Bei Weekly

OAKLAND — Dressed in a bright yellow plastic apron and blue-striped engineer’s cap, Minh Tsai, the founder of Hodo Soy Beanery, is leading a tour of his company’s new West Oakland factory. With one hand, he presents a palmful of re-hydrated organic soybeans, and with the other he gestures enthusiastically to the large silver soymilk machine behind him.

“This doesn’t taste anything like the soymilk you’re used to,” he says, as samples are passed around in Asian teacups. And he’s right: This milk is different. It’s warm, nutty, rich and savory. It’s also completely fresh.

It is hard to imagine anyone being so excited about a bunch of beans, but Tsai, a self-proclaimed Tofu Master, is engaged in a labor of love. He’s hoping that his organic soy products will raise the bar on taste for the oft-slighted soybean — that his artisanal version will help cultivate an appreciation for tofu’s true taste.

“We want you to think about tofu differently,” he says. “Not as something you just eat because it’s good for you, but something that is delicious when made fresh.”

Tsai’s personal tofu odyssey began five years ago in Palo Alto. Missing the freshly made tofu he grew up with in Vietnam and disappointed with what was for sale in local supermarkets, he decided to make his own.

“We started tinkering around after work,” says Tsai. “We kept trying until we found we could make an organic tofu we liked.”

Soon he was selling tofu at local farmer’s markets and introducing his goods to local chefs. Eventually, encouraged by the positive response, he quit his finance job and founded Hodo Soy Beanery.

He and business partner, John Notz, have expanded the company, which sells its products at 10 Bay Area farmer’s markets. Hodo, which means “good bean” in Chinese, also sells wholesale to Rainbow Market in San Francisco, as well as area restaurants, such as the Coi, Greens and The Slanted Door.

This month, the company opened its very own “bean-to-block” production facility on a residential-industrial strip of West Oakland. Here they turn organic, non-genetically modified soy beans from a Midwestern farming co-op, into soy milk, tofu blocks, soy custard, tofu puffs, soy noodles and yuba — the creamy skin formed on the surface of steamed soymilk. Hodo also makes a number of ready-made dishes, such as Cilantro Tofu Salad and Spicy Soy Croquette, which it sells at its market stands.

The company’s goal is to make a tofu so fresh, it will be in front of the customer within 12 hours of production. No artificial coagulants or preservatives are used — the soymilk is made only with organic soybeans and filtered water. This means a shorter shelflife, about two weeks, for the tofu and other products, which cost from $2 to $14 a pound.

Chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco’s Coi restaurant was introduced to Hodo in 2007 by chef Ryuta Sakamoto while writing an article for the New York Times about yuba. For Patterson, fresh tofu bares little resemblance to what most people buy in the store.

“It’s like the difference between produce picked at a farm and frozen vegetables,” he said in an e-mail interview. “The flavor and texture of fresh, well-made tofu is so far superior to supermarket brands that it’s almost a totally different product.”

Currently, Coi’s menu includes Hodo’s products in its steamed tofu mousseline, served with yuba, fresh seaweed and mushroom dashi.

This December, Hodo will open its factory doors to the public for weekly tours. Guests will get to see employees, all wearing the same engineer caps and white rubber boots, cut giant squares of tofu into smaller blocks by hand and hang sheets of tofu to drip dry on metal racks. Tsai and Notz are excited about opening their doors and educating people on tofu.

“People are more and more interested in where their food comes from and who is making it,” Notz says.

And they are hoping their new, higher production capacity will mean they can bring more fresh tofu to more independent markets, businesses and people.

For more information on Hodo Soy Beanery, where to buy its products, and factory tours, visit www.hodosoy.com or call (510) 464-2977.

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