If you diss tofu by calling it bland, blah and boring, it’s because you don’t really know tofu. In the right hands, the soybean curd’s multi-faceted personality can reveal itself as silky, velvety, unctuous, even crispy, crunchy and chewy.
While vegetarians may tap dibs on tofu as their own cruelty-free protein, tofu boasts a long, serious relationship with meat in dishes such as Korean Soft Tofu stew, Chinese Braised Stuffed Tofu and Japanese Niku Dofu (meat with tofu). And at a Tofu Showdown dinner in San Francisco last month, tofu and meat may have just tied the knot.
In a remodeled South of Market warehouse, two accomplished and widely lauded chefs engaged in an intense Tofu Battle. Between them, they produced 10 impressive dishes that showed the heights tofu is capable of reaching. But the two dozen diners who lined the table for a one-off meal were the real victors in this battle, as the Chefs took turns presenting their creations. These included a creamy tofu budino misted with white truffle vinegar; salt cod and potato brandade topped with tofu, smoked pork and carrot romesco; and a silken chocolate soy milk ganache, with burnt miso caramel, orange slices and a crunchy brittle of cocoa nibs and toasted okara (tofu pulp).
Chef Tu David Phu is the former executive chef of Berkeley’s acclaimed Gather and many other fine-dining restaurants. He is now focused on cooking Vietnamese omakase pop-up dinners to revisit and share his culinary roots.
Chef Sophina Uong, Chopped Grill Master Champion, former executive chef at Calavera and other fine restaurants, is 3-time winner of Lamb Jam San Francisco. Being newer to tofu didn’t stop her from exploring its potential in a variety of dishes that traveled the globe.
The dinner was sponsored by Feastly. Hodo Soy and Belcampo Meat Co. provided the tofu and meat ingredients for the chefs. Minh Tsai, founder, director and CEO of Hodo Soy, who attended the dinner, had fond memories of the fresh tofu he and his grandfather would buy at the local tofu truck near his home in Vietnam. As an adult in the U.S., he was frustrated trying to find similar fresh tofu available here. He founded Hodo Soy in Oakland, California in 2004 to make hand-crafted tofu from organic, non-GMO, U.S.-grown soybeans.
Instead of relying solely on the more familiar dense, white blocks, the chefs took advantage of tofu’s lesser-known (at least in the U.S.) incarnations: as yuba and okara. Yuba refers to fresh tofu skin, skimmed from gently boiling soymilk. It comes in four textures, from thin, pliable, golden sheets to softer, creamier forms. Okara is the soy pulp left over from making soymilk and tofu. Although it is a nutritional powerhouse, it is often relegated to livestock feed, because chefs or home cooks don’t know how to take advantage of it.
While the dinner was billed as a “battle of the chefs,” Chefs Uong and Phu know each other and have previously collaborated on a beef-centric menu. They seemed to share the small open kitchen space with respect and ease, and prepared a cascade of exquisitely plated dishes with sublime variations in tastes and textures. He went deep into exploring tofu’s potential in both European and Eastern-inspired preparations and she went wide, including dishes with roots in India, Ethiopia, France and Italy.
In the end, their “battle of the chefs” resembled more of a joint-forces operation to defeat raging battalions of tofu-bashers. Award winning Vietnamese American writer Andrew Lam, who enjoyed the fruits of the Tofu Battle, commented, “Tofu is one of the most flexible, versatile, transformative foods on the planet, with endless possibilities.”
Anna Mindess leads a double life in Berkeley, California. She is a food and travel writer and a sign language interpreter, two fields bridged by a fascination with culture. Her work has been published in Oakland Magazine, Edible East Bay, KQED’s Bay Area Bites and The Washington Post. Share her visual take on the world via Instagram @annamindess.