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The Vietnamese Man Who Makes America's Most Sought-After Tofu

Twenty years ago in America, tofu was considered, at best, a bland, tasteless, hippie meat replacement, and at worst, a dangerous, highly processed food product that would allegedly cause men to grow breasts and women to develop breast cancer (even though the opposite is true). It was at that time that one Vietnamese refugee decided he would take back tofu.

It All Started in Saigon

Minh Tsai grew up in District 10 of our lovely Saigon. Over the phone, he fondly recalls the time spent with his grandparents. “I was born during the war and my parents just didn’t have time to take care of me, which [was] very typical of the time. By default, my grandparents took care of me. There were daily rituals with them that were all food related. The morning would entail my grandfather taking me out to mua xôi ăn,” he tells me. Like many Việt Kiều, he easily switches between English and Vietnamese because there are still some words one’s second language can’t quite capture the emotion of.

“And sometimes we would go get fresh soy milk in one of the hẻm nhỏ. You know how people say your sense of smell is usually the longest memory? I remember [the smell of that soy milk] to this day. [Now] I can smell soy milk a mile away — it’s so fragrant. And the same place that sells soy milk would sell tofu. So sometimes we would buy a block of tofu in a plastic bag with water...like a goldfish! And we would take it home to my grandmother to cook.”

Minh continues to wistfully remember the days he would spend with his grandmother at the local wet market, learning how to pick the best produce, meat, and fish. “Those experiences growing up really influenced how I ended up starting a food business. I think some of it is unconscious, right? We love food, and we do what we love.”

“Those experiences growing up really influenced how I ended up starting a food business. I think some of it is unconscious, right? We love food, and we do what we love.”

In 1980, Minh’s parents told him they were going on a family vacation. It wasn’t until they were on the boat that his parents confessed they were actually leaving Vietnam. “So literally one night, pack up...gone. I didn’t even get a chance to tell my friends.”

His family ended up in one of the bigger refugee camps in Malaysia, on Pulau Bidong. For me, the image of a refugee camp has always conjured up images of scared, starving families huddled underneath threadbare tents behind barbed wire. When I ask Minh about his experience in Pulau Bidong, he gleefully exclaims, “I was 11. It was the best adventure of my life. I was fishing. I was stealing coconuts, shelling coconuts, and swimming. It was amazing to run around an island.” As further proof of how much he thoroughly enjoyed his time in the refugee camp, Minh wrote a book of “Huckleberry Minh” adventures about the experience for his two boys.

A New Life in America

From Pulau Bidong, Minh’s family was sponsored to go to Maryland, which didn’t have the kind of Asian community that Minh’s dad needed. So his dad went to San Francisco, a city whose Chinatown is the largest Chinese enclave outside of Asia, found work, and eventually sent for Minh and his family. “We took the bus from Maryland to San Francisco. It took three days, but that was also amazing. I think I ate more McDonald’s on that trip than my entire life put together,” Minh continues in his upbeat attitude.

After growing up in the Bay Area, Minh moved across three time zones to New York to study Political Science and Asian Studies for his bachelor’s degree, and Economic Development and Microeconomics for his master’s degree at Columbia University. Despite having two degrees from an Ivy League university, he felt the need to explain, “Much to the chagrin of my parents, I never really had good science teachers, so I never had the passion for science. I ended up just studying the things I love.”

His original goal was to work internationally at an institution like the United Nations, but “I ended up becoming an investment banker by default,” Minh cheerlessly goes on. After seeing two rounds of layoffs in the early 2000s, he had had enough: “I decided to leave because I just thought that it’s not fair that the few colleagues that I was working with were not as competent and they get to stay, while a lot of my very good and smart colleagues were laid off.” Those experiences soured his attitude towards the corporate sector: “America’s not really the meritocracy I believed in. To really be successful here, it’s not what you know, but who you know.”

The Birth of Hodo Tofu

“As an economist, I recognized that there were a lot of recessions and [I needed] to do something that is more recession-proof. And food is something that is recession-proof. Everyone needs to eat.” At that time, 20 years ago, the Bay Area was undergoing a renaissance of artisanal goods and farmers’ markets. People were eating up local and organic cheeses, chocolate, coffee, and chili sauces. But no one was making tofu.

Hodo factory.

After being disappointed in both the watery bricks of tofu at the supermarket and the non-organic tofu sold at the few tofu shops in San Francisco’s Chinatown and the Vietnamese shops in neighboring San Jose, in 2004, Minh joined the farmer market vendors. His tofu was made with fresh, certified organic beans using processes he learned from traveling around Asia and speaking with traditional tofu makers.

Some snippets of Hodo's tofu-making process. Photos via Hodofood.com.

“I wanted to show to people that tofu is delicious — if you know what you’re doing — especially to non-Asian consumers. I wanted to prove the point that you guys haven’t had good tofu, and I’m gonna show you good tofu.”

From a farmer’s market stand, selling to eco-conscious San Franciscans, Hodo Tofu — emphasis on the đậu — started supplying venues around the country, from Michelin-starred restaurants to the beloved burrito chain Chipotle. They are currently in over 3,500 restaurants and 7,500 retail stores, including Whole Foods, the Annam Gourmet of the US.

This last part is particularly noteworthy because foods from a non-white or non-Black culture have been relegated to the “ethnic” aisle of American supermarkets since the 1930s. In an interview with The Washington Post, Krishnendu Ray, author of The Ethnic Restaurateur, states, “When we call a food ethnic, we are signifying a difference but also a certain kind of inferiority. French cuisine has never been defined as ethnic. We are really not willing to pay for ‘ethnic food.’”

Yet despite these stereotypes, and against all odds, Hodo Tofu, a brand founded by a Vietnamese refugee, is the most expensive tofu brand in Whole Foods, a retailer so pricey that customers often nickname it “Whole Paycheck.”

Hodo’s products. Photos via Hodofood.com

“One of my proudest achievements is to reintroduce tofu to the west, in the best of its light, and not as another cheap product. The notion that ethnic food has to be cheap...No. We’re the most expensive tofu brand in the country, and I’m proud of it. We’re the most sought-after tofu brand in Michelin-starred restaurants in the country, and I’m proud of it.”

Hodo’s sales and distribution would thrill any food entrepreneur, but Minh recalls, “When my parents came to the US as new immigrants, I felt like they were being taken advantage of by other immigrants — that kinda pissed me off. I love the fact that I’m able to provide a really good working environment for all the immigrants that come. I imagine my parents working for me at my current plant and it makes me happy. Those are things we don’t talk about, but I’m happier with all that than how big our sales are.”

Staffs working at Hodo. Photos via Hodofood.com

Looking Towards the Future

When I ask Minh about his vision for the long-term future of Hodo, he surprises me by saying, “I think Hodo’s got a life of its own now. Kinda like a kid that’s grown up. Right? If anything, I’m working less and less. I’m not the frontman of the business anymore. I want to read. I want to write. I want to exercise. I want to cook. I want to spend time with my boys.”

Minh also muses about consulting with other packaged food brands in Vietnam, using Hodo’s “playbook” as a guide. “It’s kinda like that joke, ‘If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere?’ I have a joke that if I can sling tofu, I can sell anything. I could sell ice to Eskimos.” But he does follow-up with humility, “Hodo’s success, so much of it is the market. It’s not me.”

And who knows? Maybe you’ll see him back in Saigon in the future. “I think in a few years, when I can do even less than I do for Hodo, I want to go back to Vietnam and do a wine and tapas bar.”

Graphics by Phan Nhi, Hannah Hoàng, Hải Anh, and Lê Quan Thuận.
Illustrations by Hải Anh and Hannah Hoàng.
Motion graphic by Phan Nhi.
Photos courtesy of Minh Tsai.

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