This summer I spent 3 weeks in Guangxi and Guangdong provinces visiting some of my students. One of the places I visited was Debao County, a remote mountainous region in Guangxi near the Vietnamese border. While in Debao County, my student took me to Du’an Village for the day to learn the traditional method for making tofu.
Debao County is known for excellent homemade tofu. Debao people regard mass-produced tofu (what the rest of us eat) as “fake tofu.” Only homemade tofu is considered “real tofu” and most people only eat tofu that was freshly made that morning. The tofu-masters get up before dawn to make a batch at home. Then after dawn they take the fresh tofu to the market to sell. Before this trip, my student waxed poetically about the tofu from this area, claiming it’s the most delicious in China. He couldn’t contain his excitement about introducing me to a “tofu master” so that I could learn the old method.
When I arrived in Debao, I was promptly served a meal that included fresh tofu and I swooned. Their homemade tofu has a wonderful rich fermented flavor, like a good beer or German bread. It is usually served in simple ways, often pan-fried plain or with garlic. This fresh tofu has a deep flavor on its own, and doesn’t need a complex sauce to find flavor.
My student introduced me to a woman in her 80s who taught us the traditional method for making tofu. You can make tofu at home using a blender, however the traditional method creates a richer flavor and better texture. A big stone grinding wheel is required. Most homes in these villages have a stone grinding wheel to grind dried corn. We started that morning by grinding the raw soybeans to lightly crush the beans and take the peeling off the soybeans. The wheel is incredibly heavy and difficult to turn.
We were told that in the modern tofu-making process, the skins are removed from the soybeans after cooking, or not removed at all, which makes a poor product. Removing the skins before cooking the beans creates a more even texture.
After the raw soybeans are crushed, the skins are shaken off. They used a wide, flat basket to shake the skins onto the cement floor.
Next the soybeans are soaked in cold water for 30 minutes to soften slightly. Then the soybeans are ground a second time on the stone grinder.
After the second grinding, the soybeans are cooked in water over an extremely low fire. A wood fire is preferred. They use a special kind of wood that perfumes the tofu with extra flavor.
Once the soybeans have come to a rolling boil, a little cold soaking liquid is added to cool the mixture down slightly. Then a fermenting ash is added. This fermenting ash is a by-product from the previous batch of homemade tofu. Once the ash is added, the liquid will start to curdle. I tasted a little at this stage, and it was delicious.
Then the mixture is poured into a wooden frame that has holes in the bottom for draining. The frame is lined on the inside with fabric, which creates a pretty pattern on the finished tofu.
After all of the mixture is poured into the frame, and is wrapped gently in fabric, we pressed the wooden lid firmly to help squeeze excess liquid out.
The tofu only takes a few minutes to set into a firm rectangular shape. Once it has set, the sides of the frame are removed (like a springform pan).
Then the lid is removed and the tofu is cut into rectangles. We used a measuring tape to create lines to guide the knife.
The fresh tofu was promptly fried up for lunch. It had a rustic presentation, but was more delicious than words can describe. I greedlily ate more than my fair share on that plate. I was so proud that I helped make this tofu!
That day while we were making tofu, the orchestra of that village came over to play a concert for me. The orchestra of Du’an village is the premiere orchestra for Zhuang Opera, which is the Zhuang Minority style of Chinese Opera. The top orchestra has always come from this village, and they were proud to play a private concert for me to welcome me to their village. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The musicians are all farmers, and learned by watching their elders. None of them read sheet music. They apologized for not wearing traditional concert attire. Here’s one of the videos that my students recorded.
In the 1950s, the Zhuang Opera orchestra from this village (which would have the elders of the current members), travelled to Beijing to perform for Mao Zedong and Zhoul Enlai. They played one song for me from the concert for Mao. It’s a song celebrating farm life, and the instruments are used create the sounds of birds in the early morning.