“Innovative” vs “Conventional” Foods: Hacking Tofu

Sheets of yuba at Hodo Soy Beanery

In 2017, the food technology scene is thriving. High-quality, sustainable food is in demand, especially amongst millennials. Alternative proteins, in particular, seem to have a promising future, with companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods reimagining meat for herbivores. Tofu company Hodo Soy, however, wishes to overturn the binary categorization of “traditional foods” versus “food tech.” The beanery, whose production process yields a product with 50% more protein than other types of tofu on the market, invites consumers to reconsider the scope for innovative, plant-based proteins.

When imagining alternative protein sources or food innovation, high-tech development and production methods or laboratory experiments come to mind. However, both tofu and yuba, the tofu skin that forms during the boiling of soymilk, have a long and rich gastronomic history in Asia. In nations like China and Japan, they are not considered alternative foods but staples unto themselves.

The culinary heritage of tofu and yuba have, as of now, been lost in translation in the American market, where the products are either unknown or considered meat substitutes. Hodo Soy is pioneering recipe development by creating dishes that are accessible to the American market; these recipes still retain traditional roots, utilizing ingredients that seem new to some cultures but not to others, blurring the dichotomy between “innovative” and “conventional” foods.

A week ago, Hodo Soy hosted a Tofu Hackathon in collaboration with FoodInno at UC Berkeley, to target marketing challenges. In addition to reaching a wider consumer base, they sought solutions that would would find a way to normalize tofu and yuba consumption, pushing current and potential consumers to think of Hodo Soy’s products not as a meat alternative but as a delicacy people crave regardless of their diet. CEO and “Tofu Master” Minh Tsai stated the he wanted to increase the presence of his product to the point where children would ask their parents to “get me some Hodo” (which sounds substantially better than “get me some alternative, Asian-style, soy-based protein”).

In addition to working with influencers and targeting social media, the top pitch suggested integrating Hodo Soy products into meal kits, which the company is already enacting, and introducing Hodo food trucks. Other winning teams proposed a Questival-like, community-building series of experiential challenges associated with the company and its products, and the introduction of a Hodo “good bean” mascot to be the face of the brand, much like Gudetama and the M&Ms.

Variations of Hodo, the Hodo Soy mascot

These ideas aim to normalize Hodo Soy’s products by integrating tofu, or tofu-affiliated experiences and characters, into the daily lives of consumers. Assimilating tofu into a potential consumer’s diet via familiarization seems to raise additional question about food technology. At what point does a product cease to be considered innovative fare and is viewed as merely food? And how will this change in perception alter the manner in which that product is consumed?