Friday, September 29, 2017

We earned our lunch! Making tofu at Luoshan

About half of the population in Hualien's Luoshan are Hakka, the other half being a diverse mix of Hoklo (Taiwanese of Fujianese descent), "mainlanders" (those who arrived in 1949 or thereabouts and their offspring) and "new immigrants" (mostly women from southeast Asia who've married Taiwanese men). There's no industry, so it's hardly surprising that several households have embraced tourism to supplement their incomes from agriculture.

Big Nature Experience Farm (大自然體驗農家) is one of these, and gave us a warm welcome on a torridly hot day. Big Nature Farm's address is 58 Luoshan Village. (In Chinese: 花蓮縣富里鄉羅山村12鄰58號; tel: (038) 821 352).
This "fake" mail box has nothing to do with making tofu, but it sums up Luoshan's quaint appeal.

Big Nature Farm's boss, Mr. Lin, began by explaining that most of Taiwan's soy is imported, and almost all of what is grown domestically comes from the southwest. A single plant yields between 150 and 200 beans. The raw beans are soaked for six to eight hours in spring water drawn from near the mud volcano; this is the "magic" ingredient that gives local tofu its special taste. If the beans are left in the water for much longer than that, they start to go bad, he explained.

In the old days, soybeans were ground into soy milk with this kind of milling device. We all had a go...
...and were quite relieved when Mr. Lin told us it would take too long to do all the beans by hand, so he uses a modern machine:
The resulting soy milk is then simmered for about a quarter of an hour. It has to be stirred constantly so it doesn't burn, as that would give it a less appealing taste. Solid matter is then removed by filtering it with a muslin cloth. This requires two people to hold the cloth and rock the lumpy mass back and forth. The "milk" smells delicious, but it is the solid stuff that becomes the tofu.
This DIY activity costs NTD250 per person, is available to groups of at least four people, and should be booked a day or more in advance.

The final pressing is done by hand; the key, we were told, is to use your body's weight rather than your muscles.
Turning the tofu over onto a large plate, unwrapping it from the muslin cloth, and slicing it into quarters, requires a steady pair of hands. But, of course, the boss of Big Nature Experience Farm has done this countless times before.

The finished product has a mild yet delicious aroma and taste. Many people (this writer included) like to add a dash of wasabi to liven things up.
The folks at Big Nature are clearly experienced at hosting the media. Without being asked, they prepared a photogenic array of raw soybean, tofu, condiments and related items.

One of the items above is one of Big Nature Experience Farm's signature products: Dòufu rǔ made with mud-volcano water (pictured more clearly below). Dòufu rǔ, occasionally (and misleadingly) called 'Chinese cheese', is a form of fermented tofu but shouldn't be confused with stinky tofu. Non-spicy versions are usually a yellowy shade of brown and intensely tart. It's used in small quantities to enliven rice gruel at breakfast time. Only a tiny smear is needed - one reason I think the comparison with cheese is way off. It also finds its way into the wok, reportedly going well with various meats, water spinach, and aubergine with perilla seeds.

This visit and blog post were sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.

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