Eating tofu at the CIA

One person I originally stumbled across via the Effective Altruism community, made a Case for rare Chinese tofus, and has a book releasing in a few hours, where the Kindle version is surprisingly cheap, at least in my region.

Looking at his views in the original post where I encountered him, I'd try sum up his case for a different approach to cuisine as follows:

To a large degree, American omnivores object to vegan food because it’s reductionary, focused on subtraction (i.e. chicken-less chicken salads) and substitution (i.e. inferior alt proteins). For most consumers, these foods taste chronically worse than the originals. ... To go mainstream, vegan cuisine should explore moving beyond reduction–basing itself off meat–towards creation–leveraging culinary strengths of plant-based ingredients to build all new foods.

What's he's interested in is not "tofu" as many people seem to think of it but as a broader category:

In 2021, a team of chefs and I researched how to create new foods and found a simple yet effective formula: cross rare Chinese tofus with traditional, western cooking methods.

In the west, tofu is often seen as an ingredient, but it's actually a category of ingredients, like chicken. In China, the birthplace and mecca of tofu, there are over 25 distinct types, which are as dissimilar as chicken feet from chicken breast. The most common types of tofu in the States–firm, soft, and silken–are like chicken feet; while popular in Asia, they are poor fits for western cooking methods and taste preferences. In contrast, there are other varieties that while rare in Asia are great fits–like chicken breast.

He also looks at why views of tofu in China may be counterproductive and actually looks as promoting alternative tofus in Western cuisine as a way to make them more popular there:

In China, tofu is a symbol of poverty —a relic from when ordinary people couldn’t afford meat. As such, ordering tofu for guests is often seen as cheap and disrespectful. This “shame” drags heavily on tofu consumption and elevates the status of meat. If tofu became prized in the west, however, I think these perceptions would change.

In some ways he thinks that there are broader reasons why he thinks he could be influential:

Hardly anyone knows about these ingredients, and the few people who do don’t have incentives to share them. Because tofu is seen as a cultural relic of poverty, there is no central authority that surveys and promotes them. Rare tofus are spread out across China, most often in remote inland villages, making surveying even harder. Local producers have very low social status, so aren’t taken seriously. Practicing Han Buddhists, China’s largest block of vegetarians, are generally no more knowledgeable: a) they live clustered around China’s southeast, a region with very few rare tofus; b) in addition to not eating meat, Chinese Buddhists avoid alliums (garlic, onions, chives, etc.), which is present in >90% of Chinese foods; this means that even when Buddhists visit inland areas, they can't eat the local plant-based foods, so have little knowledge of the proteins. Historically,* western Chinese immigrant communities have come from Guangdong (Cantonese) and Fujian (Fujianese) communities, which again use very few rare tofus.* U.S. tofu producers aren’t from in-land China, don’t understand those rare tofus, and don’t know how to market them to western chefs. Because of the above reasons, western vegans also have little knowledge of vegan Chinese food and rare Chinese tofus.

As he argues elsewhere "The most distinct vegan Chinese foods come from culturally and economically isolated regions", and even the biggest US consumers of tofu aren't likely to know too much about them.

Will he be successful? I'm not quite sure. What makes me mildly optimistic is his experience at the CIA - the culinary version not the intelligence community one. On a day wherein he describes so much going wrong some things also seemed to go right:

Our Shanghai tofu soup was met with an affection reserved for chicken noodle. The fried cannoli reminded one attendee of the startlingly delicious “bell” rolls she had tasted in Singapore hotpot. The fermented tofus were shocking. Especially the rose red and chili oil variants.

As we sampled the different flavors, it hit me… oh shit! I never added tofu any to our cherry tomato sauce!! I immediately folded some in, wincing as the others leaned in for a taste.

But when I looked up, my host’s face was in sublime disbelief. I will never forget her expression, seemingly questioning how… why… and what the hell!

When I tasted the dish, I joined her in disbelief. It was so damn good.

“You want to bring this stuff to Eleven Madison Park?” I joked, knowing she was externing at the 3 Michelin star eatery next term.

“Yes.” Still confused, she sounded solemn.

Or to quote another attendee:

“We’re so tired of produce! And extra-firm tofu!” Cynthia was adamant. “You’re opening my mind!”

Will you start seeing tofu in Michelin star cuisine? I'm not quite sure, but I suspect Stiffman's efforts are at least making that a more-significant possibility.

(On a different note, I didn't notice any server downtime yet so it's possible that the outage is still to come as part of a rolling upgrade of the servers instead of tackling each at the same time).