On Friday morning, Tampa Bay restaurants took a quantum leap. In the past few years we've familiarized ourselves with pho, gotten chummy with Taiwanese boba, Vietnamese banh mi and hipster Japanese ramen. But with last week's opening of Thinh An Kitchen & Tofu we now have this: artisanal tofu.
Local restaurants are making their own mozzarella and charcuterie, canning their own pickles and jams. But tofu? It is the butt of jokes, spongy white cubes of abstemiousness, the one food Homer Simpson won't eat.
In truth, the protein-packed chameleon features prominently in most Southeast Asian cuisines, less as a meat substitute than as a source of added texture and nuance. And an increasingly sophisticated dining public recognizes that fresh versions are more flavorful and plush.
But even in cities like New York or San Francisco, almost no one makes their own. It's too time consuming, too labor intensive.
Thomas and Emily Mang have taken the plunge, with $50,000 of gleaming stainless-steel tofu-making equipment in their new restaurant at 8104 W Waters Ave. On Monday morning, the Tampa Bay Times got a behind-the-scenes look at how tofu mastermind Michael Nguyen takes 60 pounds of soybeans and transforms it into blocks of velvety "coagulated bean curd."
Nguyen, who learned the craft at a restaurant in Atlanta, makes tofu daily, usually beginning the process at 4 a.m. For our benefit, he postponed until 8 a.m., when he began pouring small, pale yellow presoaked beans into an open-topped receptacle like an oversized coffee grinder and pressed one of eight buttons on the "Tofu Machine" control panel so the grinder whirred into action. From there, he loaded the sticky beige puree into a centrifuge filter to separate out the unusable pulp; the usable puree then flowed through pipes into a huge pressure cooker. Nguyen then flipped a switch and the cooked mass passed through a pipe into an enormous vat where a coagulant was added.
Killing 30 minutes while the coagulant worked wasn't hard: We tasted several of the seven kinds of finished tofu (green onion and chile, one dotted with bits of mushroom), along with spring rolls, house-made sausage and pate, French-Vietnamese sausage-filled pastries called Bánh patê sô, intense Vietnamese iced coffee and an oddity called "three colors dessert" with sweet red beans, coconut milk and chewy tapioca noodles.
Nguyen scooped the still-hot curds into a cheesecloth-lined stainless-steel press, a pneumatic arm squeezing down slowly to exert even pressure while milky water flowed out the bottom. With the mold inverted and the cheesecloth painstakingly peeled away, the curds had bound into a snowy white mass that, using a metal template, Nguyen cut into blocks.
Although most Asian cultures aren't big into cheesemaking, this was precisely that, soybeans substituting for cow, sheep or goat's milk and the whole cycle sped up to just a few hours (oh, and the finished blocks offered for just $2).
Local restaurants like Yummy House have made names for themselves with tofu dishes, but they don't make their own. Even large-scale Asian markets like MD Oriental or Oceanic don't stock house-made or local versions, instead you'll find nationally available brands. Thinh An is moving into the void, also offering soybean milk and a range of Vietnamese pastries and sausages seldom seen around here.
Nguyen's finished product? Creamy, just slightly sweet, with a custardy texture. You might have to call it something else, but Homer would happily eat it.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.