By Gong Jingyang Photographs by Meng Zhigang
For more than 30 years, making tofu has been the most important daily routine of Li Yong, the inheritor of the listed intangible cultural heritage of Qibuchang tofu, and his wife—Li Mingzhi. Li Yong never has to worry about the sale of his tofu – every morning, be it on Longjie street’s，Chenggong，Kunming, market day or not, Li Mingzhi would have her cartload of tofu sold out in less than one hour, and she is usually the first one to wrap up her stand on the street and head for home. After her son Li Zhigang opened a tofu restaurant in his village about half a year ago, Li Mingzhi had another job to do—to procure vegetables and meats for the restaurant, after selling her tofu. Now the family is enjoying a good life with its solid tofu business.
Good water makes good tofu
After a 10-minute taxi ride from the subway station in Chunrong Street we arrived at the Committee office of Qibuchang Village. A winding path runs through the village and a cement-plastered ditch with clear water flowing in it cuts across the building corner of every household. A member of the Village Committee, Jin Fenglin, took us directly to Li Yong’s tofu mill which is in Li’s old two-story house built with adobe bricks, with weather-worn mottled red walls. We headed directly towards Li Yong’s tofu workshop where he was making tofu. The workshop is a two-storey old adobe house of Li Yong’s family where the walls look somewhat etched to show its aging status. Going inside through the 80cm-wide red wooden door, we saw Li Yong ladling boiling water and a pot with boiling soy bean milk on a large kitchen range. There were a few large pottery vats containing soy bean milk or bean dregs. On top of these vats stand some wooden racks with gauze cloths for filtering bean milk. With all the aforesaid equipment, the workshop looks very crowded and leaves a small passage which only allows one person to pass through. Li Yong and Li Mingzhi operate in coordination in an orderly manner to finish all the processes of tofu making in this workshop. By 10 o’clock in the morning, Li Mingzhi has sold out her tofu in Longjie and was already on her way home.
Stepping into the house, Li Mingzhi ladles bowls of soy bean milk for us and invites us to try it out, saying that “please drink it while it’s hot, our soy bean milk has a special flavor others don’t have.” The soy bean milk looks lightly beige and has a strong and natural aroma of soy beans. Li Mingzhi says that she drinks it every day, which may better explain why she has fair complexion that makes she appear so much younger than her actual age, namely, 49 year-old, which is definitely beyond our expectation. After being set for several minutes, the soy bean milk grew a layer of membrane called the soy bean milk skin and Li Mingzhi carefully pulled it up and handed it to me, saying that “please, you could all have a try while it’s still wet because it won’t taste as delicious as now while it dries out”. It was the first time for all of us to taste so fresh a soy bean milk skin which looked soybean-like yellow on one side and even lighter on the other side. It is also easy to chew and tasted tender and delicious, so we were all very excited in that not all the soybean milk could grow out so delicious a soybean milk skin.
Qibuchang’s fresh tofu tastes pure and sweet with medium firmness, while its stinky tofu, when fried, is crispy outside and juicy inside. We asked Li Mingzhi why Qibuchang’s tofu is so good. She smiled and answered proudly that “because we have good water.”
Before 1990s, the Longtan water of Luolong Park flowedalong the winding ditch to Qibuchang village and was called “running water” by the villagers. Tofu made from this water source won’t fall to pieceswhen lifted up and is delicious. Apart from the Longtan water, water from more than 10 old wells in the village is making great contributions for our delicate tofu as well, especially when the ditch water proves to be no longer qualified for tofu making and the villagers switch to well water. At the very beginning, tofu made from the well water was no comparison to that made from Longtan water, however, after changing the recipe, the villagers are able to make high-quality tofu again just like before. Jin Fenglin tells us that “the villagers used to dig 5-6m deep wells at their backyards which are filled with water almost all year long, even in winter when the rainfall is relatively less. During winter, there will be people lining up to fetch water out of the wells, although it often seems that the former person is about to dry the well out, it will be springing out to the same level again for next person only in several minutes.” Nowadays, there are only four old wells left for the villagers to pump, with one of them being located at the entrance of the village. Although the previous dirt road is covered with cement, we could still see the dents on the stone wall of the well left by rope frictions for decades.
A brand without promotion
Jin Fenglin told us that at Qibuchang, every household is equipped with two tofu workshops and a complete set of tofu-making instrument, including Li Yong’s workshop mentioned earlier. Between 1980s and 2000, almost each household of Qibuchang made and sold tofu. At that time, we were either making tofu or transplanting rice seedlings since rice was the only crop we planted. So it was the prime time for Qibuchang’s tofu which would be seen not only in every street and farm product market in the downtown of Kunming, but also at some relatively remote places like Dapuji village, Majie street, Jinning county, Yiliang county and Yuxi county and so on. Tofu from other places could be sold only after Qibuchang’s tofu was sold out. “When the girl of Qibuchang village marries to someone of other places, she could bring the unique craftsmanship out together with her and still sell tofu under the brand of Qibuchang. It is almost a custom for Qibuchang’s villagers to take a wooden shop sign of “Qibuchang Tofu” together with them when they go out to sell tofu and I always help make the sign since I am very good at handwriting”, said Jin Fenglin.
“From the year 2000 on, more and more villagers have switched from tofu-making to the more profitable vegetables growing, and tofu-making was simply too hard a full-day labor. The latter could bring more incomes for them while the former requires long time and energies and keeps you busy all day long.” lamented Jin Fenglin in a frustrated voice, frowned and in a regretful look. Because Li Yong still maintains enough customers for his tofu, he is unwilling to give up his tofu business and has been hanging on till today.
Currently, on the one side, there are much less tofu-making workshops in the village than before, on the other side, several of them have applied modern machinery to speed up the process. However, Li Yong insists on making tofu in old manner just like the former generations did. We asked him why he should stick to such a labor-intensive method, he answered slowly yet firmly in a calm tone that “quality goes before quantity and the more labor you put in the making process, the quicker it will be in the selling process.”
The first step for tofu-making is to soak soybeans in water for an optimum length of 5-6 hours. The best soybeans are the old variety produced locally in Chenggong district. They are small and low in yield but taste good. This kind of local soybeans require a long growing period with a low output and only a few people are growing them, which results in supply shortage to meet the demand and the risen price of qualified soybeans reaching as high as RMB 8/kg. Li Mingzhi emphasized again “it is crucial toselect the best soybeans and themoldy ones are the first to be excluded.” After being fully soaked up, the soybeans should be ground by stone mill into thick soybean milk.
“The next step is to ‘heat up’ the milk in hot water and then filter it with gauze cloth to separate the pure milk from the bean dregs,” said Li Mingzhi with his hands busy rocking the wooden rack rhythmically so the milk kept dripping through in the gauze into the pottery vat with the dregs retained inside the gauze cloth. All that could be heard in the mill was a monotonous creaking sound of the rocking rack. The bean should be poured into a clay basin and “heated up” again for further separation and then be thrown away. So the final soybean milk we drink goes through two times of “heating-up” and three times of filtrations. Li Yong also told us that the key to the “heating-up” step lies in water temperature which should be kept around 70℃ or so and the milk will taste even better if the water was heated by firewood instead of steam as is used by lots of workshops now. It is quite amazing to see Li Yong and Li Mingzhi finish these steps in perfect order and close cooperation in so crowded a workshop.
After pouring the separated soybean milk in slim and tall ceramics, Li Mingzhi remove the scum floating on the surface and then congregated the milk into tofu by adding gypsum, which proves to be the most important step in tofu-making. “The most difficult parts in this step include controls over the gypsum’s quantity and the temperature of the soybean milk.” said Li Yong while putting in some gypsum proportional to the milk. “Having been making tofu for all these years, I now have a good understanding about the right ratio of the gypsum and the milk,” said Li Yong while mixing the milk with a big ladle to adjust its temperature because first-class tofu comes from a perfect temperature. We squatted around the ceramics and wait for the changes to come and several minutes later, the soybean milk is condensed into bean curd jelly which will then be pressed into tofu. Given the fact each step of tofu-making involves water contact, so the hands of Li Yong and Li Mingzhi look whiter, cleaner yet more wrinkled than other people of their age.
After the whole procedure is finished, there will be a great number of bean dregs left to fill up several big jars outside the workshop, far more than those produced by modern machinery method. “The reason why modern machine produces less bean dregs from the same amount of soybeans than traditional method is because that some of the dregs are not separated fully from and mixed in the soybean milk which is therefore not pure enough to have a enjoyable taste.” said Jin Fenglin.
The traditional craftsmanship is rather time-consuming and less productive. Generally speaking, Li Yong and his wife process 50kg soybeans everyday which could produce more than 50kg of tofu, which are far short to meet demand and require this couple to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning to start working. In winter, tofu will be in an even bigger demand, so Li Yong will have to work overtime to make more, and he cannot go to bed till 12 p.m. He has to get up at 3 or 4 a.m. in the busiest period of time.
The tofu craftsmanship has been passed down in Li Yong’s family for generations, with his son Li Zhigang being the fourth inheritor. Li Mingzhi could make tofu all by herself since she was fourteen years old, “I learned from my mother when I was young”, she said. In the next room, wooden racks were neatly filled with piles of stinky tofu, whose surfaces were covered by some fine white fluff and have been air-dried for five days—one more day and they are ready for consumption. Qibuchang’s stinky tofu is even more popular than ordinary tofu,and tastes delicate and glutinous, be it steamed or fried. It is said that the stinky tofu was discovered accidentally by Qibuchang villagers in the Qing Dynasty. The leftover of unsold tofu were left aside for a few days, and were found tastier, and folks decided to make the ‘hairy tofu’ on purpose.”said Jin Fenglin.
It was almost lunch time and Li Mingzhi was going to steam some stinky tofu to treat us. She put pieces of stinky tofu into a big bowl, sprinkled some salt, pepper powder and some oil on top and had them steamed in the steamer. The neat tofu blocks became deformed in irregular shapes after 10-minute steaming. “It must be that the surface of stinky tofu cracked when steamed and mixed up with internal bean pulps, and got out of shape”. The steamed stinky tofu tastes a bit spicy but feel rather tender.
The fried stinky tofu is crispy outside and juicy inside, and it just melts in mouth. Before having the stinky tofu fried, it is necessary to have it wrapped in egg white. In order to keep its original flavor, this dish goes with no seasonings but salt. As the upgraded version of fried stinky tofu, the Yipin Tofu is extremely tender to taste. First, simply have the stinky tofu fried; second, have them re-fried with seasonings; finally, have some starch melted in water and pour the mixture on top of the re-fried tofu.
As the cold weather approaches, Li Zhigang promotes tofu hot pot in his restaurant. We decided to have a try on the double-flavor hot pot and Li Zhigang strongly recommended to add the stinky tofu into it. After the seasoning soups were boiled, we poured some fried stinky tofu inside and saw loose pores on the surface are fully filled with hot pot soup right away, and I immediately ladled some up to have a fresh bite. It tastes tender and slippery and is not as stinky as I had imagined, the formerly crispy surface tasted quite chewy now and its inside got so juicy that the whole mouth was filled up with the unique smell of stinky tofu and its hot juices.
Looking at our smiling faces with satisfaction, Li Zhigang bragged that “I’ve grown up with the stinky tofu and can no longer feel the surprise you are feeling now; Our stinky tofu is tender indeed. You could also have its skin ripped off, mix the inside parts with eggs and have the mixture steamed and it tastes the best of both, – yummy!”
Different tofu recipes
The tofu skin we had tasted quite different after being further processed. For example, Li Zhigang has the freshly made tofu skin wrapped up in egg for further frying so that the moisture would be kept inside. After it’s done, the whole place will be embraced by its tempting smell and it tastes incredibly agreeable.
What Qibuchang villagers have the most commonly proves to be the fried dry tofu skin which tastes crispy and lightly sweet with a strong and pure soybean smell. “The freshly formed tofu skins shall be ladled up and dried in the shade for 4-5 hours, instead of being exposed directly under the sunshine.” says Li Zhigang. The key to fried dry tofu skin lies in the oil temperature which should be moderately hot in that too hot a temperature might have it burnt while too low a temperature might fail to fry it crispy enough; besides, it is not advisable to fry it for too long. When the hospitable Qibuchang villagers entertain their guests, this dish is seldom absent from the dinning table. Jin Fenglin told us that he himself is able to fry as many as dry tofu skins available for dozens of tables. First, have a pot of oil boiled; second, remove the pot away from the fire; third, put the dry tofu skin into the oil in an orderly manner to fry and pick it up out of the oil instantly. During the whole time, enough attention should be attached to feel the change of the oil temperature which should be heated up again once it drops down.
The sauced white tofu salad is also a special dish worth mentioning. The fried white tofu is sliced into thick pieces and mixed with seasonings of oil, salt, pepper, onion, ginger and garlic etc. It is crispy on the fried outside and its inside remains white and tender and tastes as smooth as pudding. Have the tofu wrapped up in egg white and starch before frying it in the hot oil as a whole piece; then picked it out and slice it into pieces, which are now crispy on the outside and tender inside.
Even the soybean dregs can be made into dishes, such as beef bouillon with soybean dregs, fried fennel with soybean dregs and fried chrysanthemum coronarium with soybean dregs which are all delicacies. We had a try on the fried fennel with soybean dregs which tastes dry and appetizing. Have the soybean dregs fried till it’s dry and then add the fennel in for further frying till they are well-done. Generally speaking, it is not necessary to filter the water out of the soybean dregs if they are used for these dishes.
Endowed with high-quality water by nature which is crucial for the making of top-notch tofu, Qibuchang impresses the world with a variety of delicacies made of tofu. Currently, there are totally 5 tofu-themed restaurants in the village, where tofu is dishes are made in all forms via sautéing, frying, boiling and steaming... Li Zhigang told us that tofu could be processed into hundreds kind of food. However, the most unforgettable one for him is called“rice in soybean milk” which he often ate in his childhood. Back then, his parents were busy making tofu to cook for him, so he often had the rice soaked in hot soybean milk for meals, which would be perfect when it was complemented by fermented bean curds which is easy to make: have some tofu (the thicker, the better) dried before its fermentation with salt, liquor and ground chili pepper for a required period of time.