Tofu, or dofou as it is known in Mandarin Chinese and dauh-fuh in Cantonese, has a long culinary history in China. According to H.T. Huang in “Early Uses of Soybean in Chinese History,” soymilk originated during the early Han Dynasty (202 BC to AD9.) It is believed that shortly thereafter the technique of producing bean curd was developed. A mural found in a later Han Dynasty tomb (25-229 AD) in Mixian, Henan Province, illustrates the essential steps in making tofu. Though it is now a food that most Chinese families eat several times a week, “it was, as I understand, first predominantly made for the emperors,” says Chris Valliant of Phoenix Farms Tofu. While there are contradicting historical accounts of who invented tofu and for whom, there is no doubt that Valliant’s tofu is fit for an emperor.
Chris and his wife, Feng, make artisanal batches of tofu at their homestead in Bloomington, Indiana. “I’m the farmer,” Feng says. “Chris is the helper.” Chris is also a professional carpenter. They have combined their individual strengths to make an enterprise that, at 16 months old, has a steady stream of business keeping the two of them happily at maximum production capacity. They share the task of making the tofu in their professional grade kitchen that Chris designed and built.
Feng learned about farming during her youth, helping out on the family farm in the town of Luencheng, Guangxi province, China. She grows numerous greens and lettuces, as well as bok choy and long beans to sell at the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market. She also grows the soybeans for the tofu sold at the market, meeting local regulations that the farmer grows at least fifty percent of the raw materials in value-added products. To fill their annual 5,000 pound bean requirement, the rest of their non-genetically modified soybeans are purchased.
Feng was the impetus behind the business’s inception. “A long time ago, I came here and we were talking about it. We had a lot of land and vegetables and I said to Chris ‘How come I don’t just take these to the farmers’ market?’ And Chris said, ‘Are you crazy?’ and I said ‘No I’m not crazy.’” Now, at 15,000 pounds of tofu a year, Feng definitely had a good idea. In addition to designing the label for the tofu, she was also the inspiration for the name they chose: Feng’s name means Phoenix in Chinese.
Just as the farming and market production was a natural extension of Feng’s life experience, so was the path that led to producing tofu. “When I was a kid, my father did a lot of tofu. A lot of Chinese families have to eat tofu, not that much meat, pork, and they have to learn how to do it to feed the kids. Every time we would eat the curds, my father always yelled ‘don’t eat that much! don’t eat that much!’” Feng is smiling. “We’d think ‘Why not let us eat it? It’s not like we were eating the tofu.’ And, it’s the way my father did it a long time.” Now a tofu producer herself, Feng knows that the curds become the tofu.
When Feng came to the United States, she sampled the tofu that was available at the grocery stores and was not impressed. Chris tells me, “When she went to the Asian market and got the tofu she said ‘Oh, this is yuck.’ I thought well this is tofu isn’t it? I mean this is what tofu tastes like. And when we were in China and I ate some of this man’s tofu, I thought ‘this is not like anything I’m used to.’” Feng and Chris knew they could make a much better product, one like the homemade tofu Feng had grown up with.
Originally, they were hoping to be taught by Feng’s father only to find out that he was no longer making tofu. As luck would have it though, her father’s friend was still producing the most renowned tofu in the region. So, Chris and Feng traveled to Guangxi province to learn from Yan Tan Xan who after forty years of working seven days a week was still making tofu. There, they apprenticed with the master, whom they also call the Man, for six weeks. “The people in the countryside speculate that he puts some other additive in the tofu to make it so good,” Chris recounts. “They can’t believe that it’s so different from others.” Even Feng’s mother was asking her what the secret ingredient was. The Man vends his tofu in the market each day, but often graciously arrives late, waiting until other vendors have had the chance to sell theirs. The Man’s tofu is the crème de la crème; once he arrives, patrons will buy from no one else.
Chris and Feng make their tofu essentially as they were taught by Yan. They grind the soybeans, boil them in water, and the resulting liquid is strained to give soymilk. The solids are fed to the fowl, never added back in as they might be in commercial tofu. Calcium sulfate is added to the soymilk as a coagulant, creating the bean curd. Finally, the excess water is pressed from the curds using weights. Unlike factory-produced tofu that is made to last several months on the shelf, Feng and Chris’s tofu is not pasteurized and contains no preservatives. Ingredients: Beans, Water, Calcium Sulfate.
And yes, tofu made with calcium sulfate is a good source of essential calcium. But, other coagulants can be used, too. In Japan, sea salt is used which supplies magnesium sulfate. Lemon juice might come to mind to those who enjoy culinary experimentation, though for flavor’s sake Feng did not recommend it.
There are a few differences between the Valliant’s technique and the Man’s. He cooked over a wood stove and did not require a thermometer but rather could judge by eye when the beans were ready. In the US, wholesale food distributors sell fifty pound bags of powdered calcium sulfate. But where the Man makes his tofu, it is a mined rock which he cooked and pulverized before using. Whereas Chris and Feng use weights to press the bean curd, the Man used rocks upon rocks. “I didn’t think he was going to stop,” Chris chuckles. “I mean he just kept putting these rocks on top.”
Phoenix Farms Tofu is creamy and yet firm enough to savor in uncooked slices, wrapped in greens with toban djan chili sauce, carrots, and peanuts or almonds. Feng’s favorite recipe includes tomatoes in a stir fry, not too spicy, not too saucy. “Cook the tofu with oil, then add the tomatoes, garlic, soy sauce, oil. Then put the lid on and cook until it’s all soft and you can tell that it is all cooked the way the juice gets in there. It’s the way I like to cook…….It’s Chinese cooking.” Chris’s favorite method is thinly sliced, ¼” or so, and fried.
Before departing from a lovely afternoon with Chris and Feng, we walked around the farm about which there is much to appreciate: rolling hills, the quietude of the countryside, a rooster that had been punctuating our interview with his own pronouncements. As I was leaving, they sent me off with a dozen eggs, some decorative wheat, and the generous spirit of a couple following their dream.
Phoenix Farms tofu can be enjoyed at the Green Bean Café, Bloomingfoods East Deli, and can be purchased at the three Bloomingfoods locations, all in Bloomington, IN. Phoenix Farms Tofu uses non-genetically modified soybeans. Contact information for Phoenix Farms can be found at www.phoenixfarmstofu.com