The fascinating story behind three local tofu makers

When Phyllis Wang heard that she couldn’t get tofu in Australia, she decided to drag a stone mill halfway around the world to ensure she’d have her bean curd fix here.

The year was 1937 and her husband Martin was a Chinese diplomat. Their relocation to Sydney meant tofu was no longer a staple she could rely on, but something she’d have to grind from soybeans in her new home.

So her hand-cut granite quern underwent an 8,000-kilometre sometimes journey with her from Nanjing, and for the next half-century, she used this stone mill to prepare tofu at home – serving the bean curd with rice soup.

Today, if you feel like tofu, long-distance hauling of stone equipment is no longer needed. You can simply head to your nearest supermarket or Asian grocer, dip your hand into the fridge and find at least three kinds of soy blocks (silken, firm, regular). There might even be fancy variations: smoked, organic, soy-splashed, honey-marinated, or the reliable puffs that you ladle into a laksa or pho, letting these bean curd cushions bob and float like welcome buoys in your bowl.

Wang went on to found the Chinese Women’s Association of Australia and her bean-grinding tenacity made me appreciate my easy access to this staple in a newfound way. Her experience has stayed with me since I first came across it – when I’d simply typed “tofu” into the Powerhouse Museum’s collection to see what came up. That’s how I noticed her quern, gifted to the museum in 1994. Her account inspired the soybeans episode of the Culinary Archive podcast I’ve created with the museum, and it’s a reminder that food staples often become accessible because of the hard (equipment- dragging) work of migrants.

I hoped to find early tofu sellers to include in the podcast, but we’d completed our episode by the time I received an email from Dr Gary Leong – so I’m glad I can share his family’s historic connection to tofu-making here.

“At that time, you couldn’t buy bean curd in Australia. I’m talking about the late ’50s,” Dr Gary recalls. “It wasn’t available.”

His Uncle Raymond Leong was operating a fish and chip shop and doing night shifts at a car factory when he (somehow) had the energy to consider adding tofu-making to his working hours.

So Uncle Raymond Leong enlisted the help of Dr Gary’s Yee Por (“my second grandmother”), who was living in Macau at the time. “He got her to bring all the equipment,” Dr Gary says. “She ended up bringing one of these huge basalt grinders that they used in the traditional village, where they ground this bean curd.”

“She ended up bringing one of these huge basalt grinders that they used in the traditional village, where they ground this bean curd.”

Uncle Raymond Leong got good mileage out of that well-travelled grinder: his tofu business ran from 1960 until his retirement in 1975.

“They got all the kids to get involved,” says Dr Gary, referring to his cousins ​​Evelyn and Fred, and their part in the backyard business.

“Fred was telling me yesterday, the neighbors were always complaining because of the smell and the noise,” Dr Gary recalls. Yee Por did a lot of the grinding and Uncle Raymond had to source soybeans from America, because he couldn’t find them in Australia. Then he’d ferry trays of finished bean curd in his car, delivering them to Asian grocers and restaurants.

Although Dr Gary grew up in Melbourne, he definitely benefitted from the family-run business.

“Whenever we came up to Sydney for special visits, I remember we’d also have tofu hwa,” he says, referring to Chinese tofu pudding. “Because it’s softer than the traditional bean curd, it was harder to sell and transport it.” So that leftover sweet tofu was helpfully ‘handled’ by the hungry relatives.

“Uncle Raymond didn’t make a lot of money from it and in all that time; he never increased the price of the bean curd,” says Dr Gary. Eventually, the business was relocated to a factory in Glebe – sparing his children from more after-school grinding duties – and was sold, in 1974, to Stanley Yee of Emperor’s Garden Restaurant in Chinatown.

I did find a current tofu maker to talk to for the Culinary Archive podcast: I interviewed Sava Goto in April for our soybeans episode. Since our initial chat, she’s opened a permanent shopfront for her Tofu Shoten business in West Melbourne.

She tells SBS Food she’s been busy hand-making momen (semi-firm tofu), ganmodoki (tofu fritters), kinako (toasted soybean powder), kinako spread and other Japanese soy products for her store. Kuzu mochi, a starchy cold jelly with dark sugar syrup and sprinkled kinako, reminds her of summer days in Japan.

The bestselling item at Tofu Shoten, though, is her soy milk.

“I was so surprised. Why soy milk? We’re a tofu shop,” she says, confused. “To be honest, Bonsoy tastes better.”

Self-deprecating comment aside, lots of shoppers with Chinese, Taiwanese or Hong Kong roots visit the store for her freshly made, unsweetened soy milk, sometimes buying four litres at a time. It’s easy to see how she clears 150 litres of soy from Tofu Shoten every week.

Prior to opening the shop in July, she had a pop-up in 2020 – located at Kines in Brunswick, a cafe where she worked. Her boss there was incredibly supportive of her interest in making small-batch bean curd. In fact, before she knew it, he was cutting a wall at Kines, to create a kiosk for her tofu production.

“Inside the cafe, you’re going to make a tofu shop for me and you didn’t even ask?” she remembers thinking at the time. “That’s amazing!”

At the original Tofu Shoten pop-up, she sold kinu (silken), atsuage (deep-fried) and other Japanese variations of hand-made tofu – reminders of the sweeter bean curd of her birthplace.

“I ran it for about three months and I literally burnedt out,” she says. Hand-squeezing endless litres of 9˚C soy milk for the pop-up proved exhausting (and thankfully, she has machinery to help her nowadays).

“I want people to know about their tofu.”

Goto grew up in Fukusaki, a countryside town in Japan’s Hyogo prefecture. Her grandparents farmed soybeans and served the family freshly harvested edamame in summer, seasoned with a showering of salt. But her tofu fascination actually began while working at a Melbourne Vietnamese restaurant in 2017, where she was impressed by a local maker’s hand-made tofu. She began her own soy experiments at home in 2018, and then was trained by a tofu master in Osaka in 2019. She spent a year refining her recipes afterwards. Tofu Shoten’s initial pop-up opened with her hand-made momen, atsuage and kinu (silken) blocks on the menu.

One of her specialities at the current Tofu Shoten is okara – the excess pulp generated from making tofu. She says it’s “quite rare” for shoppers to find this, because factory production leads to okara being discarded, or dumped as fertiliser or animal feed.

A lot of Korean Australians seek out her okara, particularly for dishes such as kongbiji jjigae, which she describes as a kimchi stew. “They put it straight it into the soup,” she says of the soy pulp.

Some people ask if they can turn the grounds into a veggie burger patty (“it’s hard, but yes”). Okara also is transformed into a mild miso, too.

She happily answers visitors’ questions about how to use tofu (and its many versatile by-products), but she hopes people don’t assume Tofu Shoten is the only small-batch tofu shop around. Goto suggests exploring suburbs with strong Vietnamese and Chinese communities for more variations on hand-made bean curd.

“I want people to know about their tofu as well. There’s not only Japanese style, but there are so many,” she says. And you don’t need to carry heavy stone equipment to appreciate the existence of such bean curd, either.

Lee Tran Lam is the host of the Culinary Archive podcast, which features episodes on oysters, grains, coffee, tomatoes, brewer’s yeast and soybeans.

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