Guest post: the Hodo Soy Beanery tour! »
There are three main reasons I was pumped when I found out that Hodo Soy Beanery in Oakland offers tours of their factory: 1. I eat a lot of tofu, and I like to know how stuff I eat is made; 2. I’ve been playing with the idea of making my own tofu and goma dofu (sesame seed tofu) at home and wanted to see a larger version of the process in action; and 3. My favorite part of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was when he’d go to some factory to see how backpacks or pencils are made—and this was my chance to experience that thrill live! So last Wednesday, my childhood friend from Boston, Ivy, and I headed out to Oakland to see how beans become that curd we all love.
A little background: Hodo was co-founded by a former investment banker, Minh Tsai, and his brother-in-law Dean Ku back in 2004. They noticed a gaping hole in the tofu market: freshness. In Asia, tofu is meant to be eaten the day it’s made—not packaged in shrink wrap and refrigerated for weeks. They sold their homemade soy products at farmers’ markets, became very popular, and decided to open a factory in October 2009. They don’t ship very far to maintain freshness; you can buy it at Whole Foods and Rainbow, and they sell to super-fancy restaurants—like Coi and the Slanted Door—in the Bay Area. Also, John Scharffenberger is the CEO. Um, random.
Our tour started in an adorable little room with one wall covered in curtains, where our group of 10 visitors were greeted by two staff members and tiny espresso cups of warm soy milk. The milk tasted more like liquid tofu and not very much like the Silk or Edensoy we all know. My friend and I weren’t fans (although she did down hers ‘cause she felt bad), but I can see how some may find it soothing and very clean-tasting. We then watched a video narrated by Mr. Tsai explaining the history of the factory and the details of the tofu-making process. Then they opened the curtain to reveal the extremely clean—and surprisingly small—factory floor.
[can’t see the video? watch it at vegansaurus.com!]
I was a little sad that we didn’t get to actually go on the factory floor, but you really could see everything from the windows and I totally get that they don’t want us nasty outsiders sneezing in their tofu. Our very friendly guide, Rachel (who knew all about Vegansaurus!), explained what every part of the factory did, including the “soy milk cow” (gross?) and the yuba station. Apparently, all their machinery was made by one of the oldest tofu equipment manufacturers in China.
Yuba is the skin that forms on top of the milk—and no, it’s not gross like the shit on old pudding or gravy. Hodo meticulously lifts each sheet of yuba and hangs it to dry on a rack (the ones that day were being lifted by a cheerful fellow named Binky, or something equally awesome, who wore giant headphones and jammed to his tunes as he worked). I’d never had yuba before, but my Chinese/Japanese friend remembered her childhood experience of it as “soapy/watered-down tofu” that she would only force down if her parents doused it in soy sauce and chili oil. But she agreed with me that Hodo’s yuba was frickin’ goooood. Delicate but kinda chewy, and very tasty! We got a whole table’s worth of samples to try, and I had to stop myself from being THAT GUEST and snarfing down the whole plate myself.
We also learned about nama yuba, which is apparently like the vegan version of Burrata cheese, and is a fresh, non-dried version of yuba. It’s not able to be mass-produced, so that shit’s only available to fancy people in fancy restaurants.
Our table o’ soy was adorned with everything from curry-marinated fried tofu chunks to braised firm tofu, spicy yuba strips (holy moly SO GOOD), and hijiki tofu salad, among others. Everything was great and totally made up for not being allowed to get all Mister Rogers on them. There were products that we could purchase, both food and clothing (like t-shirts that said “Who’s your Tofu Master?” and fab hats my friend described as “totally commie Mao with railroad engineer stripes”). We opted for just food and brought home several containers to continue our soy journey later.
While our experience at Hodo was yummy and informative, an aspect of their practices did bug me. The factory produces a massive amount of okara-–bean pulp that’s left over when the soy puree is filtered during the tofu-making process. While some people do eat it in stews or in veggie burgers, the demand is not high enough for Hodo to actually package it for distribution. So they donate it to Magruder Ranch in Mendocino to use as feed. Magruder raises “sustainable” meat in the form of lambs, cows, and heirloom pigs (cause, you know, the fourth most intelligent species on the planet is the same thing as a tomato). They even offer “bucolic weekend getaways” on their death farm, bitchin’ butchering workshops, and “happy” little videos on their Facebook fan page of piglets with their mom-–before they become the subjects of those workshops! SCORE!
I know that Hodo is not a vegan company-–they are just accidentally vegetarian. But I still needed to ask them about their choice of okara beneficiary, since I assume the majority of their customer base is vegetarian, vegan, or at least appreciative of that lifestyle. I asked them why they didn’t donate their feed to a local produce farm for compost instead. They said that they’re in discussion with some farms right now to do that, and that they have so much okara that there is plenty to go around. Perhaps I wimped out, but I didn’t feel that the environment was appropriate to start a heated debate, but I do intend to write to them to encourage them to reconsider their practice, and I think it’d be great if fellow vegans joined me. I understand that to Hodo it’s just waste that they are finding a practical way to dispose of, but it’s also indirectly supporting a meat ranch by helping it spend less money on feed. It would behoove them to consider the demographic that is purchasing their product, and, if nothing else-–even if they don’t care about the ethical implications of their actions—at least see the gesture of giving to a produce farm as a great marketing opportunity. Wouldn’t a vegan or vegetarian feel better about purchasing something without any connection to the meat industry?
I definitely do recommend the tour. I think it’s super-important to know where your food comes from, and having the opportunity to actually see it is pretty rare. Plus, the more vegans that show up and voice their opinion on Hodo’s okara donation practices, the more likely it is they will change them. I don’t believe Hodo is some evil meat-industry supporter—I think that they haven’t looked at what they are doing from a different angle. And what are we vegans good at if not changing someone’s perspective?
Vi Zahajszky left her motherland of Hungary as a child and has spent most of her life in Boston and New York. Two years ago she drove across the country to San Francisco with husband Chris Carlozzi and a rescue pup named The Bandit. Here, among other things, she’s studying fashion design and pattern-making, and has plans to develop a vegan clothing line. Also, she’s enjoying no blizzards. Photo enhancing and video editing by Chris Carlozzi.