A few months ago, Spenser magazine approached me to photograph a story about the craft behind the tofu at Hodo Soy Beanery. Knowing nothing about the whole process, and always game for a new challenge, I jumped at the opportunity. Julie Wolfson and I spent a morning at the beanery before hopping across the bay to sample an array of tofu dishes at The Slanted Door. You can read the full story in the latest issue of the magazine (which also features work from fellow bloggers Rick and Asha) and, if you really really like it, purchase a printed copy for posterity!
After that visit, Minh invited me back for a stage at the beanery where I could really dig in and get a hands-on experience for the tofu and yuba (tofu skin)-making process. Despite being fully kitted out with state-of-the-art tofu-making equipment flown in from Taiwan, it is the human touch that does most of the work to create a slab of Hodo tofu. Machines steam the organic, non-GMO soybeans specially trucked in from the Midwest, crush it into a slurry to produce deliciously rich soymilk, some of which is bottled for consumption, and some reserved for yuba-making. The rest is transferred to another machine that adds filtered water and calcium sulfate (the coagulant), stirs it altogether and lets the mixture sit for a bit before piping it out into sturdy metal molds lined with cheesecloth. Now this is where it gets fun.
In order to get the right degree of firmness, you’ll need to drain the curds of most of its excess water before shaping it and sending it off to be pressed. Sounds easy enough, but for a novice like me, it was hard work (as it should be!). I got a good workout just an hour on the line lifting and draining those cheesecloths and prepping the molds to be set. I also discovered the true meaning of ‘artisan’, in that not every slab of tofu is going to be perfectly the same. My instructions for draining the curd, and for knowing when I was done, were all based on sight and touch, an expertise developed after many hours on the line, to know at a glance when a mold is ready to be pressed and when it still needs more hefting and draining.
Once ready, the molds are then pressed in the machine, which sets the tofu. The longer the press, the firmer the tofu will be, hence the importance of draining out as much liquid as possible before sending the curds to be pressed – excessively firm tofu is hardly any joy to eat, and while I’d also argue that firm tofu isn’t much of a joy either, I’ll save that story for another time.
The other highlight of the day was spending time in the zen corner of the beanery where fresh tofu skin is made. It’s a surreal landscape of soy protein, with laundry lines of supple, wrinkled soymilk skins hung out to dry in a field of steam. And it smells so good. I grew up with this aroma, where a glass of freshly made soymilk was a morning’s reward for accompanying my grandmother on her grocery trips to the market. It is an unforgettable fragrance, soft and mild yet silky rich, a tease for the senses heralding the pure bliss of having one whole mug of fresh soybean milk all for yourself. Gosh, I’ve just made myself homesick right there.
The yuba corner is another example of the artisan principle at work. Soymilk is kept warm at a constant temperature of about 145F (63C) and left to develop a ‘skin’ on its surface, ready to be harvested when it turns just the right shade of yellow and just the right distribution of wrinkles. Then, you work quickly and carefully with a paring knife to dislodge the skin from the edges, pinch a spot on either side of its longest edges and hang it over the rack to dry. Speed, balanced with skill is imperative here so that you harvest the skin in one piece and avoid burning your fingers in hot milk.
Minh sells these skins both fresh and prepared which you can toss into salads or stir-fries. Because it’s difficult to find fresh yuba skins (they’re very perishable), I love using them to recreate some favorites from home or from the dim sum table. They’re also good added to broths or pan-fried to a crisp for a healthy garnish.
At our first visit, Minh passionately shared his – and Hodo’s – mission in the world of tofu. “I want to educate the public about what good, really good, delicious tofu, tastes like. Tofu is more than just a health food. I want to show that it tastes good and that it’s versatile and you don’t need to be a vegetarian or a vegan to enjoy it.”
Spoken like a wise Tofu Master. And as a fan of tofu and its associated products, I couldn’t agree more. Tofu is more than just plant-based chunks of protein that you substitute for meat.
So. Are you itching to make your own tofu now?