Who: Hoang Tra My and Chuong Sy Chi
What: Vietnamese tofu
Where: Mo village in southeastern Hanoi, Vietnam
In the southeast of Hanoi, not too far from the banks of the Red River, there's a little village famous for its tofu. Bags of soybeans grown in Russia, the U.S,, and China come in, and wrinkly blocks of rich, flavorful tofu leave by the wide-mouthed basketful for restaurants, wet markets, and street corners around the city.
Yes, you read that right: Tofu can be fragrant and delicious — no marinades, sauces, or other cover-ups needed — when it's made the Vietnamese way. Here's how they do it.
Soybeans to Soy Milk
Making tofu starts early, and it starts with soybeans. Hoang Tra My and her husband, Chuong Sy Chi, welcomed me into the first floor of their home to see how they make tofu for the afternoon and evening markets, which still has them starting at 5 a.m. Other families start at 11 p.m. and work through the night to sell at the morning markets.
The first step takes the longest: one 50kg bag's worth of dried soybeans is soaked in water to separate the skins and soften the beans. In Hanoi's hot summer, this only takes three hours, but in the cool winter and spring weather, it's more like seven hours.
When the beans have finished soaking, they're run through a mill twice. The mill grinds them up, and a cheesecloth filters out the solids. The beany solids are sold as pig food, and the liquid — soy milk — will go on to become tofu.
What Makes Vietnamese Tofu Ingenious
From this point, making tofu is a lot like making paneer. The soy milk goes into a big pot and is boiled for 15 to 20 minutes over a hot charcoal stove. Next, a spoonful of table salt is added to enhance the tofu's rubbery texture, and an acidic coagulant is added to separate the off-white tofu curds from the yellowy soy whey.
This coagulant is the genius of Vietnamese tofu — sour, acidic soy whey from a previous batch of tofu is what separates the tofu curds and whey, rather than vinegar, lemon juice, Epsom salts, or other coagulants that many recipes call for.
This way, no other flavors complicate the tofu. The soy whey sits and acidifies for one to three days, depending on the temperature outside. This means the earthy soybean taste can be the flavor hero.
It may seem simpler to make tofu with just three ingredients — soybeans, water, and salt — but it's tricky. Using too much acidic soy whey (which translates from Vietnamese as "sour water") makes tofu that's sour-tasting and hard, and adding too little means the tofu will be too soft. According to My, you just have to know how much it takes.
Forming Tofu Blocks
With the whey added, the tofu mixture is stirred to a texture like chunky cottage cheese. An assembly line begins: Workers with practiced hands strain spoonfuls of soft, hot curds into cheese cloths, which they expertly fold over into tubes, shimmy-shake sideways a few times, and fold again into cubes in a worn wooden mold. The whole process takes less than 10 seconds.
When the mold is full, the cubes are then gently pressed to squeeze out any remaining liquid, giving them a characteristic dip in the middle. Then the blocks are unwrapped and stacked, still hot, on a wide basket. By the end of a 10-hour day, 50kg of soybeans has become 1,000 blocks of tofu.
Tofu to Table
My and Chi sell their tofu to restaurants and resellers for 1,500 Vietnamese dong, or about 7 cents, per block. At the market, a block will sell for about 1,700-2,000 dong each, stored in buckets of water to keep it fresh. That tofu will probably be fried or boiled, and likely cooked with or served alongside fish sauce. But since the beans were boiled, it can actually be eaten raw.
My, Chi, and their daughters eat tofu every day, and they never get sick of it, even though handling the hot, acidic whey and scrubbing soy-caked pots every single day hurts their hands. After trying their aromatic, nutty tofu that has just the right texture, I can understand why.
Thanks, My, Chi, and translator Thu!