Farmers markets are far more than a source of good food from small farmers and a place to build connections among the community. They can also serve as incubators for food businesses, places where new entrepreneurs can try selling prepared foods on a small scale or where experienced market participants can try out new products or recipes. The Los Angeles Times and CUESA have recently looked at this incubator phenomenon, highlighting a chocolatier and pesto maker in Los Angeles and a taco maker in San Francisco who got their starts at farmers markets.
Another farmers market-incubated enterprise is Hodo Soy Beanery, a company whose tofu-making facility near downtown Oakland, CA, I had the pleasure of touring recently. The company was started in 2004 because the founders wanted better tofu than they could find at local stores. They started selling at one farmers market, had success, and expanded to additional markets while picking up multiple restaurant accounts. Today, they sell tofu and several prepared products -- I'm particularly fond of the spicy braised tofu -- direct to eaters at 13 farmers markets around the Bay Area. Their products also get to eaters via restaurants and grocery stores, including the wildly successful Slanted Door, Monterey Market, and some Whole Foods markets.
It takes just the right kind of bean to make great soy foods. Hodo (which means "good bean") sources certified organic soybeans directly from a single farm -- the Clay Family Farm in Dakota, Illinois — to ensure that the soybeans are right for their tofu and soy milk needs. Their direct buying, and that of the entire soy food industry, however, doesn't have much impact on the U.S. soybean market, because most soy goes to oil, animal feed, or industrial feedstock, and most have been genetically engineered. According to the USDA's Oil Crops Outlook and a USDA background page, just a few percent of soybeans are consumed directly by humans in the form of tofu, tempeh, soy milk, and other soy products. Nonetheless, it is certainly a positive development for this farm to be able to work outside the commodity system directly with the end user.
The facility reminded me of a cheese factory, with sets of stainless steel vats, tanks, and molds, but without the yeasty, cultured aroma that you find in a cheese factory. And, since Hodo's soy milk and tofu is meant to be eaten fresh, there are no aging rooms. That's not surprising, because the basic process for tofu making is similar to cheese making: heat, curdle, press. The equipment in Hodo's plant, however, was designed and built in Asia specifically for soy milk and tofu making.
Dry soybeans are the starting ingredient for all of Hodo's products. The beans are soaked in water for several hours to rehydrate them, then cooked under pressure. The cooked beans are finely ground, then passed through two levels of filtration to separate the solids from the liquid. The resulting liquid is soy milk; the solids are generally known by the Japanese word okara. The soy milk that comes out of the filtration process can be bottled and sold or made into tofu or yuba.
Yuba is the most distinctive product made by Hodo; indeed, they might be the only company in the U.S. that makes fresh yuba for retail sale. It's a thin, rippled, pale-yellow, somewhat elastic sheet that's composed of soy proteins and lipids. It is made in an array of small containers of soy milk. Steam heat is applied to the bottom of these containers; contact with the air at the top causes a skin to form, which is then removed by hand and hung to dry before packaging. Yuba is subtle and delicate: some call it the "sashimi of tofu," and it was the inspiration for a piece in the New York Times Magazine by four-star chef Daniel Patterson of Coi restaurant. It is versatile, serving as a wrapper for a savory filling, as a pasta analogue, and as an addition to soups or salads, to name a few uses.
To make tofu, the hot soy milk is transferred to a vat. Coagulant is added; in Hodo's case, it's calcium sulfate, a naturally occuring mineral that has been used by the Chinese for centuries. The mixture is stirred, allowed to curdle, and then the curdled mixture is poured into a cloth-lined porous mold. The whey goes down the drain.* In the case of silken tofu, soy milk, and the coagulant are mixed in the containers that will be sold (i.e., pint-sized plastic tubs) and allowed to set on its own. This process allows the tofu to obtain a smooth, delicate texture.
The curds are pressed to remove excess water using a weight appropriate for the grade -- medium tofu gets one weight, while the firm tofu goes into a special machine for some serious squeezing. After the pressing is complete, the tofu is cut into blocks and transferred to a bath of cool water for storage until it is packaged for sale or transferred to the in-house kitchen to be made into one of Hodo's prepared foods, like edamame tofu salad or spicy braised tofu.
Although I'd love to see Hodo branch into other soy products like tempeh or soy sauce, they would need to do that production in a different facility, as the organisms that drive the fermentation process could colonize the factory and cause all sorts of trouble for the soy milk and tofu production lines.
Hodo Soy Beanery's success thus far seems to be the result of an intersection of multiple themes: a dedication to quality and freshness; the multicultural and culinary adventurous nature of the San Francisco Bay Area; utilizing a low-key, direct-to-consumer marketing model via farmers markets (Hodo is now starting to sell in some grocery stores); harnessing the loyalty of locavores and soy aficionados; and taking advantage of efficient transportation and communication networks to bring soybeans and tofu-making equipment to Oakland.
Further reading about tofu and Hodo Soy Beanery:
* Okara and the whey from the tofu-making process are apparently useful as green cleaning agents. Tofu Cookery by Fusako Holthaus notes that okara can be used to polish floors and woodwork. The book recommends wrapping okara in a cloth and applying vigorously to a surface, but is short on details -- should the okara be dry or moist? What kind of cloth is recommended? The Book of Tofu by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi notes that the whey can be used as a soap, and that they have heard of tofu shops using the whey to clean tofu-making implements and workers' hands.