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On Your Mark, Get Set: Making Tofu, An Adventure Story

2011 May 9

by Sarah A. MaineOrganic-Dry-SoybeansJessie’s Panko-Crusted Tofu re-ignited a question that has been burning in my mind for a long time: What is tofu really?  Yes, it’s a soy product, a bean curd, but what does that mean?   My fascination with tofu started when I was a kid – I wasn’t fascinated with eating it as much as I was interested in its spongy form.  It was a weird and mysterious food, which was fun to poke and prod, but I didn’t really appreciate its value.

In the neighborhood where I lived growing up in Semarang, in Central Java, there was a precarious lean-to that belched steam and emanated strange dank odors – the by-products of a small tofu making operation.  I never saw inside, and I usually tried to avoid the billows of steam, illuminated by the green gleam of a kerosene lantern, as I hurried past on the way to friends’ houses.  My child brain decreed tofu odd stuff that was made in spooky places.  When I was twelve, my family left Asia and moved to Italy.  My tofu ruminations were left behind and replaced with the culture shock of living in a western country.

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Cut to me as a grown-up, living in the US.  My American tofu encounters have mostly been in the form of excessively fried slabs courtesy of a vegetarian ex-boyfriend, and bland cubes floating in Thai soups.  Tofu went from being a food that warranted investigation to being a non-food, it seemed formless, tasteless and pointless.  Most tofu in stores here is hermetically sealed in layers of indestructible plastic packaging.  If you do manage to free it from the container, you are confronted with a flavorless block that could very well be extra-terrestrial in origin.  Not high on my list of appetizing items.

Recently however, I experienced two streams of tofu convergence.  First, at a Korean restaurant near my house (sadly, it has since closed) I experienced real tofu for the first time since childhood – it was delicious, delicate and exquisite.  The server told me it was purchased from a wholesale tofu producer who did not sell to the public.  Second, I saw this video about the Hodo Soy Beanery in Oakland, CA by Liza de Guia of food.curated.  There it was – the whole tofu making process laid out – no green steam or anything, my fascination was immediately renewed.

When I saw Jessie’s photos of the array of tofu available at the wet market, I began to look for a good tofu outlet here in the city.  I contacted my friend Amri about collaborating on the recipe with me.  Amri is from Malaysia and is my go-to person for specialty Asian food items in New York.  She knew of a couple of places that make tofu in Chinatown, but none using organic soy beans.  I took a chance and introduced a whacky idea – we would make our own fresh organic tofu – from scratch.  Lucky for me, Amri was game.  I did some research and settled on a recipe to follow and we embarked on our tofu making adventure.  Our goal was to pair the fruits of our soy labors with the tender spring bounty that has begun to crowd into New York area farmers markets.

In preparation I soaked organic dried soybeans (available in bulk at Whole Foods and some health food stores) overnight.  In the morning the beans were plump and shiny and full of promise.  Tofu making is made up of two main phases – 1. making soy milk, 2. making the curd.  Amri and I got down to business grinding, cooking and straining the beans to make the milk.  After about half an hour of labor we were the proud, and slightly stunned, owners of a large bowl of steaming soy milk.  Really fresh soy milk has a more distinct vegetable flavor than boxed soy milk, we both tasted it and pronounced it good although different from what we were used to.  Moving right along we put the soy milk back into a pot on the stove and followed the instructions for adding the coagulant and separating the resulting curds from the liquid.  These curds went into a homemade tofu press lined with cheesecloth (made by cutting slits in a plastic storage container) and topped with a tower of pantry items.  Then we crossed our fingers and waited.

The result?  We did it, we made tofu – and it was absolutely delicious.  We actually made two batches using two different coagulants: Epsom salts and apple cider vinegar.  The Epsom salts batch was more firm and kept it’s shape better, the vinegar batch was delicate and creamy with a barely perceptible sour tang.  With no experience and minimal equipment we succeeded in making tofu – two delicious and unique blocks of it; our amazement lingered as we prepared the other elements of our dish – more about that on Thursday – see you then!

Sarah A. Maine is a Co-Founder and Editor of RecipeRelay.  She is very very very excited that spring has finally arrived in the Northeast and is eagerly awaiting the start of her CSA season.

  • Anonymous

    I never realized I could make my own soy milk… that’s so interesting!

    • Sarah

      It’s really pretty easy! I’m posting a follow up post tomorrow with more specific observations and learnings from the process. If you make your own soy milk you have to tell us how it turns out!

      • Amri A

        My mum’s tip on making soy milk: if you want to sweeten the milk (to take the edge off vege taste), make simple syrup separately. Then, add the syrup to the soy milk once it’s cooked. Otherwise, it will make the milk cloudy. Also, the milk can be served hot or cold.

  • Jessie Chien

    This is amazing! I am so impressed that both turned out so well. Am going to the market this week in search of some soybeans and proper cheesecloth!

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  • Aisha

    I am unbelievably impressed! Congratulations!

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