Every Saturday in Sunnyvale and every Sunday in Palo Alto, Oanh sets up the tables. She hangs a white banner with a simplified lavender elephant and the word “Rau Om” in calligraphic green, and a poster featuring a little mouse prancing with a block of tofu on his back, with the word “Mice eat Rau Om’s Tofu Misozuke” below. Then she arranges dozens of little bamboo and plastic wrap packets on the table, each containing a block of tofu in beige paper, about as big as a match box. Then she’s ready for the Farmers Market. And the tofu is ready to be sold out, every last one of them.
Over two years of experimenting, Oanh says, including lots of PubMed searching, an 18th century manuscript in old Japanese, and who knows how many pounds of firm tofu. It all started with an accidental find in Tokyo’s night food scene in 2009, and here they are, at a Californian Farmers Market, offering a Japanese elder a taste that brings her decades back home. It’s like the tofu has achieved its American dream.
When I first had my tongue on Rau Om’s tofu misozuke at one of Oanh’s dinners, I thought wow, this stuff feels like La Vache qui Rit. It’s exactly that texture, that kind of tender springiness of a creamy cheese that bounces when you touch and has no resistance when you cut, the kind of softness on the verge of melting, like that of a 64°C slow-poached egg yolk. When the taste starts to register, like a tenth of a second later, it’s a whole different affair. There’s some brininess, some tingling sensation, but there’s no fat. It’s a creamy cheese that isn’t at all fatty, naturally, because it’s a vegan cheese. The brininess comes from the miso, and the tingling sensation comes from the sake. A few seconds deeper is the soothing sweetness of soy and sugar.
I fell for it. I know I’m going to sound like a tofu freak now, one that might as well protest for the civil right of the tofu and occupy the supermarket because soy is the 99%, but this meat lover is gonna say it: tofu is a really freaking awesome invention in food history. If people say it tastes plain with a frown, I say they don’t know how to appreciate the “plain” taste. That’s the taste of water and steamed rice, the flat tone in music, and the white space in photography. It’s better than good, it’s a necessity. When I’m tired, I crave exactly that taste. Then there are a hundred ways to make tofu depart from plaindom. And the Rau Om couple succeeded splendidly in one of them: make tofu into tofu cheese (tofeese? ).
Oanh and Dang also let me try a wedge of kombu-wrapped tofu. The kombu attenuates the miso saltiness and promotes the aged sweetness. The kombu tofu misozuke is one level deeper than the tofu misozuke. I was hoping to buy it last time, but:
FlavorBoulevard: Did you wrap this new batch of tofu misozuke in kombu?
Oanh: No. We’ll roll out the kombu-wrapped tofu misozuke in a few months, and it’ll be clearly labeled as such.
FB: What kind of tofu do you use? In your blog, you wrote “firm tofu”, but would you like to elaborate?
Oanh: We are buying regular tofu from the supermarkets. A to do item for us is to look for a local source for tofu.
FB: What about the miso?
Oanh: One of the first recipes we found specified white or yellow miso. We did some experiments with other types of miso and found the results less than satisfactory, with all the caveats that come with a negative result.
FB: How long does each batch take?
Oanh: The miso flavor permeates the tofu almost immediately, but to get to the right creamy texture, it takes at least 2 months.
FB: How long can the tofu stay good (refrigerated) after packaging?
Oanh: About a month.
FB: Currently the tofu misozuke is marked at $7/packet (2.5-3.0 oz). Based on what standard did you set the price? Are you worried that it might be a bit high for the general market?
Oanh: The price is as affordable as we can make it given the production costs and is at a comparable level to other artisanal hand-made cheeses. Like fine cheeses, the process of making tofu misozuke is labor intensive, both during the initial production and regularly during the aging process which lasts at least 2 months. That’s not even counting our research cost, which we figured was just part of our food budget, the price of our food obsession.
FB: Can it be used in cooking, like in soup or pizza? Or salad? Would the flavor diminish in the process?
Oanh: Yes, it’s definitely can be used in cooking. The flavor is intense enough to stand up to the cooking process. We once used it in a squash blossom & beef dish. We definitely can see it work in salad. We had a post a while back about some of the uses of tofu misozuke. We’ve also used it in place of chao (Vietnamese fermented tofu) to make duck hot pot, and we recently found out that it worked very well with prosciutto.
In the States, you can’t find this kind of vegan cheese anywhere but the Rau Om online store and their Farmers Market tents. Or you can spend 2 months making it at home, following Rau Om’s recipe, assuming that you succeed on the first try. I wouldn’t. Rau Om’s tofu misozuke, in its offwhite color and handmade packaging, is very Hollywood-girl-next-door from appearance to content: her hairdo doesn’t sparkle, but once you know her, you fall helplessly in love, especially if you are any of the followings: tofu aficionado, cheese aficionado, vegan, and foodie.
Basically, tofu misozuke can be used anywhere cheese and soybean paste can be used, but as my friend Masaaki Yamato says, that would be like using caviar to make soup. A wise man would enjoy tofu misozuke alone with an ochoko of sake, and let his senses fly.
DISCLAIMER: I received no free product or monetary gift in exchange for this review.