Know Thy Tofu Lady

By Caroline Hatchett | Megan Swann

By

Caroline Hatchett
Megan Swann
Meet New Orleans’ reigning queen of bean curd, Mrs. To Le.
Meet New Orleans’ reigning queen of bean curd, Mrs. To Le.

In a town where chefs are accustomed to calling on a single crabbing family or hog farmer for product, Mrs. To Le is making a name for herself as the city’s reigning queen of bean curd. Le’s tofu is superlative, but it doesn’t have a romantic back story. She didn’t learn to make it at her mother’s heels in her native Vietnam. Le was part of the mass immigration to New Orleans’  East Bank after the fall of Saigon. Over the years, she helped make tofu for her sister’s fledgling business, but Le only started her own business in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, which put serious economic strains on the East Bank community. Le either had to relocate or find a new way to make a living. Tofu, it seemed, could keep her in New Orleans. 

Le launched her business in earnest in July 2012, deciding early on to buy organic soy beans and pricier Japanese-style coagulants. She could taste and feel the difference. “The texture is silkier. It’s amazing. You can taste and smell more of the soy,” says Le. 

She initially made 35 pounds per week to sell at local markets. Soon, though, she connected with VEGGI Farmer’s Cooperative who brought her into the New Orleans restaurant supply chain. Through VEGGI—which helps her with marketing and distribution—she now sells tofu to 17-plus markets and wholesale accounts in town, including Angeline, Green Goddess, Hollygrove Market, MOPHO, and Dante’s Kitchen.

For the uninitiated, tofu is made much like paneer and other fresh cheeses, just with soy milk. Le soaks dried soy beans for 12 hours, then drains and grinds the beans, separating the meat from the shell. She combines the soy meat with water and cooks it until it reaches 100°C, after which she mixes in coagulant to form the curds. As the curds develop, she scoops them into a press, allows the water to drain, and eventually presses and cuts the tofu into blocks. “The machines and everything have to be perfect—the grinding, cooking, and pressing are so precise,” she says. 

What chefs and diners prize in Le’s tofu is its supple texture and freshness—qualities not matched by mass-produced tofu. “Mrs. To Le’s tofu doesn’t get spongy from being over-processed and vacuumed sealed—all that harsh processing gives most tofu the texture of a bouncy ball,” says Rising Star Chef Michael Gulotta of MOPHO, who orders 60 to 100 pounds a week for tofu po-boys, tofu summer rolls, and tofu noodle bowls. “It’s halfway between firm and silken. You can still grill, fry, and braise it, but it doesn’t get tough. It stays silky on the inside.”

Le sells plain tofu for $3 per pound (about 80 cents more than commercial) and flavored versions— like her garlic, lemongrass, and chile—for $5. Her biggest customer is Seed, a vegan restaurant off Prytania Street that goes through 125 pounds per week, and her production has grown from 35 to 500, and occasionally 1,000, pounds per week. 

Le’s success represents a major shift in the dining market. Forty years after she arrived in the States, the flavors of Vietnam and the East Bank have gone mainstream in New Orleans. Chefs also are designing their menus to satisfy young transplants, adventurous locals, and a growing number of health-conscious diners. Tofu rests at the intersection of the change, and in a city that made its culinary reputation on seafood and pork, there’s a new culinary truism: know thy tofu lady.

 

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