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Meat-like qualities whet the US appetite for tofu

Biologist tackles taste, texture issues

Tofu is good for people, rich in protein and in substances that may reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. But you'd probably need a molecular biologist to figure a way to get meat-loving Americans to eat the bland, mushy soy product.

Enter Xiang F. Kong, who happens to be a molecular biologist. Kong, once a researcher at the Boston University and Harvard medical schools, spent more than two years developing a tofu with a consistency, texture, and flavor that would appeal to the American palette.

In other words, something a lot like meat.

Kong appears to have succeeded and his new product, known as Tofettes and coming in flavors such as teriyaki, barbecue, and Jamaican jerked, is quickly gaining a following.

Tofettes hit the market earlier this year, starting with small grocers like A. Russo & Sons Inc. of Watertown, and already have found their way to the grocery chains Roche Bros. Supermarkets Inc. of Wellesley and ShopRite Supermarkets of New Jersey. Shaw's Supermarkets, a unit of Albertson's Inc. of Boise, Idaho, is also considering stocking Tofettes, which, the Shaw's manager for vegetable produce said, might represent the ''next generation" of tofu products.

Kong's pursuit of next-generation tofu is based on research -- his own and others' -- that shows products made from whole foods, like soybean, provide greater nutritional value than refined products, extracts, and dietary supplements. Some meat substitutes, for example, use a refined soy protein, which doesn't provide the same nutrients as whole bean products, said Barbara Klein, a codirector of the Illinois Center for Soy Foods at the University of Illinois.

Soy is best known for providing necessary protein without the fat and cholesterol of meat and dairy products. Soy also contains isoflavones, substances similar to the human hormone estrogen. Some studies have shown isoflavones lower the risk of heart disease and some cancers, Klein said.

Other studies have suggested lower rates of heart disease and cancer in Asia might be related to higher consumption of soy products, such as tofu, said John Erdman, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois.

But here in the United States, Erdman said, tofu has run up against two main obstacles: taste and texture.

Tofu accounted for just $261 million of the $4 billion soy food market, according to ''Soyfoods: The US Market 2005," published by Soyatech Inc. of Bar Harbor, Maine, and SPINS Inc. of San Francisco.

Kong, 62, solved these problems by combining traditional methods of tofu production, which is similar to making cheese, with modern technology. The process begins with whole soybeans that are soaked overnight, then ground to extract soy milk. The milk is curdled, and the curds used to make tofu.

To achieve a meat-like texture, Kong uses a press that employs precise heat and pressure, established through a lengthy process of trial and error. The tofu, cut into small pieces, is then briefly fried in vegetable oil.

The result is tofu ''unique in its textures and ability to take on flavors," said Peter Golbitz, president of Soyatech, a consultant and publisher specializing in soybean and oilseed industries.

''The whole process is very innovative," Golbitz said. ''He's doing things with tofu that I haven't seen anybody try in 20 years."

And it seems to be working.

After first tasting Tofettes at Russo's in Watertown, Clydia Davenport, 56, of West Roxbury tracked down Kong and ordered two cases -- which Kong personally delivered. Her favorite flavor: teriyaki.

''They're chewy and delicious," Davenport said. ''I served them to my parents and they didn't even know they were eating tofu."

Kong's company, Soya Foods, operates out of a small plant in Dorchester, employing as many as 10, depending on orders. Kong is preparing to expand production with the help of a $75,000 line of credit from the Massachusetts Community Development Finance Corporation.

Meanwhile, Kong has developed a unique process to roll tofu in thin sheets, instead of traditional blocks, and allow him to add another product line he hopes will appeal to the American palate. Up next: tofu pasta.

Robert Gavin can be reached at rgavin@globe.com.

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