Tofu: The Development Of San Jose's Soybean Economy
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San Jose is known as the tofu capital of America due to its diverse, fresh, and convenient tofu offerings in restaurants, supermarkets, and numerous tofu storefronts. Although San Jose may not have as many tofu storefronts as New York or Los Angeles, it has a significantly higher number of tofu shops per capita. San Jose boasts a vibrant tofu scene, with no less than ten shops specializing in freshly made tofu.

The diverse cultures and traditions of the city are reflected in the variety of tofu available. For instance, US SoyPresso offers Japanese-style tofu pudding topped with soy milk and sweet beans, while Taiwanese Sogo Tofu serves deep-fried tofu in "biandang" lunchbox-sized pieces. Vietnamese Thanh Son Tofu is renowned for its tofu-stuffed banh mi sandwiches. Vietnamese-style tofu dominates the San Jose market, with at least six strip-mall tofu delis, including Thanh Son, clustered in the heavily Vietnamese East Side of the city.

San Jose's first tofu shops were established by Japanese American immigrants in the early 20th century. Tofu shops were present in San Jose's Japantown for over a hundred years, with tofu shops spreading wherever there were Japanese immigrants in the US. However, as the Japanese American population aged and shrank relative to other Asian American groups, the growth of tofu shops slowed down. Packaged tofu became more prevalent and was sold in supermarkets instead of specialty stores. The rise of packaged tofu led to a decline in tofu shops in some cities. However, in San Jose, a new population of Vietnamese immigrants arrived in the city after 1975 and picked up where the Japanese American community left off.

Vietnamese Americans created their unique type of tofu shop, selling bean curd alongside snacks and drinks in a deli-style format, ushering in a new tofu renaissance in the South Bay. Today, Vietnamese tofu delis make up the majority of tofu businesses in San Jose. These delis serve loyal customers who prefer the tender and delicate texture of Vietnamese tofu, which allows it to absorb more flavor. Quality is checked by customers who poke the Saran-wrapped tofu on display, similar to poking the belly of the Pillsbury Doughboy. The Vietnamese-style tofu has proven to be a hit in San Jose, where it is a preferred option for home cooks, local restaurateurs, and workers looking for a hot snack.

Unlike Japanese and Chinese-style firm tofu, which dominates the grocery aisle, Vietnamese bean curd has a ricotta-like consistency. Vietnamese tofu makers use a different process than Japanese and Chinese artisans, which enhances this textural quality. Instead of using nigari or gypsum, they use a more refined process to create a creamy and fluffy texture that is much softer than the firmer Japanese or Chinese tofu styles. San Jose's tofu shops offer a wide variety of options, catering to the diverse cultural traditions in the city. Despite not receiving as much mainstream recognition as other neighborhood institutions like pho restaurants and banh mi takeout joints, San Jose's tofu delis are an essential and valuable part of the city's culinary landscape.

It would be blasphemous to write a piece on the San Jose tofu scene without mentioning San Jose Tofu, a legendary family-run business formerly based in San Jose's Japantown and founded in 1946. This business had been creating artisan tofu using traditional techniques since its founding until the owners finally called it quits in 2017, after more than 70 years in the industry. The soybeans used in the tofu were non-GMO and organic. The tofu was made fresh daily, without the use of preservatives or chemicals. The tofu was sold at local farmers' markets and various grocery stores throughout the Bay Area. San Jose Tofu also had a small retail shop located in San Jose. The shop carried tofu, soy milk, and a variety of other products, such as rice crackers, rice cakes, and mochi.

Tofu Yu, a small plant located in West Berkeley, specializes in the production of bean curd. They use machines imported from Harbin, Manchuria, to process organically grown soybeans. The soybeans are ground by the machines, and the mixture is boiled to create milk. Magnesium chloride is added to the mixture to thicken it, and the resulting product is blended several times before being extruded into various shapes, including soft blocks, firm slabs, and thin sheets similar to cold cuts or felt. The head chef, Stuart Reiter, uses the tofu to create a variety of meatless dishes, including mock-meat sandwiches, wheatless arame sandwiches, wheatless pasta, vegan cheesecakes, salads, mousse, and more. Tofu Yu was founded by Kevin Stong and He Hua Yu, who refer to the plant as a "soybeanery." They hired Reiter to develop a product line that debuted at farmers' markets from San Leandro to Pinole. A larger restaurant location in El Cerrito is expected to open soon.

The story of San Jose's soybean economy is a testament to the power of innovation and collaboration. From the early days of tofu-making in the city, when a small group of entrepreneurs paved the way for an entire industry, to the present day, where tofu has become a staple food for many residents, San Jose's journey has been nothing short of remarkable.

The development of the soybean economy in San Jose has not only created economic opportunities for local farmers, but it has also contributed to the growth of the city's food culture. The availability of fresh, locally made tofu has allowed chefs to experiment with new recipes and flavors and has made tofu more accessible to those who may not have tried it before.

As the city continues to grow and change, it is clear that the building blocks of tofu will continue to play a significant role in shaping San Jose's economy and culture. With the ongoing commitment to sustainable farming practices and the innovation of local tofu producers, there is no doubt that the soybean industry in San Jose will continue to thrive for generations to come.