For a lot of Americans, tofu conjures up images of bland, squishy cubes: a sorry alternative to meat. Even in Asia, where tofu was born, the soybean was initially seen as unappetizing, not to mention flatulence inducing. This episode, we tell the story of how people in what's now northeastern China figured out how to turn this legume of last resort into an array of nutritious, delicious foods, from slippery beancurd skins to silken puddings, and chewy soy crumbles to funky, fermented hairy tofu. Then we introduce the parade of unlikely figures—including Ben Franklin and a 1970s acid casualty who believed he could communicate telepathically with animals—who finally brought this "soybean cheese" to the Western masses. And, finally, we meet the twenty-first century immigrant entrepreneur trying to rebrand tofu from virtuous but boring into something much more delicious and desirable. Listen in now for all that plus Camembert tofu, anarchist zines, and the curious origins of that Thanksgiving favorite, Tofurkey.
This is the tofu we made with Minh! It's Nicky's first baby tofu and she's never seen anything so beautiful.
Wendy Fu is an associate professor of Chinese at Emory University, where she studies the history of science and medicine in modern China. Wendy’s book (published under the name Jia-Chen), The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China, examines the role of soy and soymilk in the creation of modern nutrition science, food security, and nation building in China.
Jonathan Kauffman cooked in professional kitchens for several years before turning to writing, spending several years as a features writer on food and culture at the San Francisco Chronicle. His book, Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat, draws on extensive research as well as his own experiences growing up in a liberal Mennonite family that made “hippie food.”
Minh Tsai and Hodo Tofu
Before entering the food business, Minh Tsai worked in investment banking, software, and management consulting. Eventually, frustrated that he couldn’t find the delicious, fresh tofu he’d grown up with in Vietnam, he decided to make his own—and Hodo Tofu was born. He started with a stand at San Francisco farmer’s market 17 years ago; today, you can find Hodo Tofu in more than 7,500 retail stores and 3,000 restaurants.
Scenes from our tofu-making session at Minh's home in Berkeley
Eater visits the oldest tofu factory in America
Our partners at Eater made this video at one of the original Japanese-American tofu factories on the West Coast: Ota Tofu in Portland, Oregon.