I was having dinner the other night with one of the former cooks from Greens restaurant—Greens from back in the day, right after Deborah Madison left to go to Santa Fe. We were talking about its slightly scandalous, Zen Center, hippie past and what has grown out of it. I've often thought about how the free-loving movement (which really encompassed Chez Panisse too) has made "California cuisine" what it is today to a large extent. The farm-centric menus. The tofu.
Of course, most hippie values are old-fashioned values you see in back-to-the-land movements. Farmers are not the hot new thing, for the record. Nor are fresh chicken eggs or composting.
While I think we might have to give the alfalfa sprout–credit to the hippies, tofu has an ancient history in Asia, particularly Japan and China. One that Adam Sachs recently covered in the last issue of Bon Appetit with his enoyable sense of humor as he did the deep-soy bean dive on a trip to Kyoto. He interviews a guy named Chris Rowthorn: "Hippie, crunchy, pinko-leaning. In America, we have all these associations for tofu," says Chris Rowthorn, an expat writer who lives in Kyoto and runs personalized tours around Japan. "But in Japan, you'll see the hardest construction workers or truck drivers walk into a restaurant and order a block of cold tofu."
Here in the Bay Area, tofu also has a (relatively) long past—long enough to jump the commune, but maybe not long enough for towtruck drivers to make it a staple. (Apparently Quong Hop, based here, was the first tofu maker in the United States; they launched in the Bay Area in 1906 and are now based in South San Francisco.)
But in regards to tofu of the newest generation, it looks like the best tofu is coming out of a meeting of both the American and the Asian minds. Two companies—Hodo Soy Beanery and Berkeley-based Tofu Yu—are both owned and run by someone who grew up in Asia and an American. Hodo Soy, which has a following at the Ferry Plaza, has launched its new factory in Oakland which even offers tours; it's now sold in shops such as Thom's Fresh Organics in the Richmond. The Atlantic Monthly recently covered Hodo in "Making Tofu Hip."
It's no coincidence that hip is a derivative of the word hippie.
So, here's to tofu chic. To celebrate it, try making Hodo Soy's popular chocolate mousse to woo your non-crunchy, Birkenstock-hating, tofu-loving love this Sunday. But as a nod to tofu's roots, you might want to wish him or her a Happy Chinese New Year too. This February 14th, the Year of the Tiger and Valentine's Day coincide.
Chocolate Tofu Mousse from Hodo Soy Beanery
Posted on Sunday on Hodo's blog