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A Most Unusual Tofu

In the mountainous parts of Luoshan, Taiwan, we discovered the age old tradition of volcanic mud tofu.

2018-01-09 18:23:56 2018-01-09 18:28:25
Volcanic water tofu
Volcanic mud water tofu

The sleek Puyuma Express pulls up at the weathered but well-kept platforms of the open-air train station at Fuli. White clouds of pulled cotton hang placidly in the blue sky. There is nary a person in sight and the late morning tranquility is only disrupted by the dull clatter coming from the worn wheels of my trusty Samsonite.

Mountains in Luoshan, Taiwan
Mountains in Luoshan, Taiwan

Fuli (富里) is located at the most southern point of Hualien County in Taiwan. The rural township sits in the East-Rift Valley, flanked by the Central Mountain Range and the Coastal Mountain Range, and is home to scenic sights such as the Liushidan Mountain and the Luoshan Waterfall. Farming is a way of life here, with rice and day lilies (Golden-Needled Flowers) among its most notable products. But I have come for neither—it is the fresh, warm tofu made from volcanic mud water that I seek.

A Most Unusual Tofu 4
Women working in the fields in Luoshan.

Guiding my tofu quest is Manson Yu from the Fuli Farmer’s Association. Yu shares that to uncover the elusive tofu unique to this land, we have to make a trip to Luoshan Village, the first organic farming village in Taiwan.

Surrounded by mountains and sandwiched between two streams located separately to the north and south, Luoshan Village has all the makings for developing organic agriculture. The Hualien research center initiated a pilot project to grow organic rice on a small area of farmland there in 1993, and thanks to the unspoilt lands, pristine spring water (from the Luoshan Waterfall no less), the local produce gained reputation for quality.

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Soybean pods grown by Mr Zhou of Mingli No.13 B&B

With numerous still-active mud volcanoes (not the lava spewing variety) in the area, the folks at Luoshan have been making volcanic mud tofu since the 1930s. The art was almost lost during the later half of the 20th century. It was not until mid 2000s, when locals revived the traditional craft. This was due to efforts by the Cabinet level Council of Agriculture (COA) of Taiwan to develop Luoshan into an organic village and to promote agritourism, using the area’s organic farms to attract tourists.

As part of the programme, the local administration, farmers’ association, and the officials of the Hualien District Agricultural Research and Extension Station under the COA worked with senior residents in Luoshan community to revive volcanic mud tofu making.

Typically, commercial tofu is made from soy milk with the addition of coagulants like calcium sulphate (gypsum) and magnesium chloride (nigari, the leftover liquid after salt has been removed from seawater). Silken tofu (嫩豆腐) is made with gypsum and then allowed to set, hence containing a higher water content. The denser firm tofu (板豆腐) is pressed—just like volcanic mud tofu.

However, volcanic mud tofu needs no additional coagulants—all that is required is soybeans and water from the Luoshan Mud Volcano, located near the Luoshan Waterfalls. Fuelled by subterranean thermal activity, the bubbling mud pool offers a muddy water that is mineral-rich and suitable for making volcanic mud tofu.

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The bubbling volcanic mud from Luoshan.

TRADITIONS RE-DISCOVERED

There are not many places in Luoshan where you can find volcanic mud tofu. In fact, there are only all of four families still practising this traditional craft. Wen Ma Ma Huo Shan Dou Fu (溫媽媽火山豆腐, translated as Mama Wen’s Volcanic Tofu) is one of them. The matriach Wen-Luo Yu Qin shares that volcanic mud tofu originated out of pure necessity during the Japanese Occupation when food was scarce. At that time, her late mother-in-law Wen-Fu Jin Mei (Mama Wen) heard that water from the mud volcano could be used to make tofu.

“Our family grew soybeans on the farm, and tofu was a good source of protein, so my mother-in-law thought she’d give it a try. It worked like a charm, but because the water was muddy, the tofu was gritty. She soon realised that when the muddy water was left to stand overnight, the sediments sank to the bottom, leaving clear, mineral-rich water on top. Using this clear water, the tofu turned out flawless and was used to feed the family,” says Wen-Luo Yu Qin.

As living conditions improved after the war ended, it became easier to buy tofu, and Mama Wen, too, like others in the village, stopped making her own. It was almost 40 years later before Wen-Luo Yu Qin, working with the Extension Station, took the initiative to have her mother-in-law share the recipe and, after some tweaking, brought back the craft of hand-made volcanic mud tofu. Wen-Luo Yu Qin has since passed on the know-how to her daughter-in-law Lin Xiao Yun, the third generation tofu maker.

Presently, the family runs a restaurant that serves homemade volcanic mud tofu in dishes like pan-fried salt and pepper volcanic mud tofu and braised volcanic mud tofu to promote the awareness of this time-honoured craft. Tofu making experience sessions are available by appointment only.

THE PURE JOY OF MAKING TOFU

In the dim kitchen in a house of red brick, Lin makes volcanic mud tofu daily. She begins by preparing the wood-fired stove (the same one Mama Wen used so many years ago), adding pieces of bamboo and wood, and getting the fire started. The firewood adds to the flavour of the beancurd, she tells us.

She sets a giant wok filled with spring water on the stove, and while the fire grows in intensity, she adds presoaked soybeans to a grinder. Spring water is added to the soybeans as they are ground down into a white, creamy milk. By now, the roaring fire is ready, and the spring water in the wok is steaming.

A Most Unusual Tofu 8
Tofu making at Mama Wen’s: (from left) grinding the soybeans, filtering the cooked soy milk, squeezing out excess liquid from the dregs

Lin pours in the thick soy milk, dregs and all, and stirs it carefully. As the mixture comes to a boil, the aroma of soybeans perfumes the air. Under the watchful eye of her mother-in-law, Lin transfers the hot soy milk, metal scoop by metal scoop, into a cloth-lined bucket. She bundles up the dregs and squeezes out the excess liquid. This filtered soy milk is returned to the wok (she reserves two cups of soy milk for our drinking pleasure) and water from the mud volcano is added. Throughout the process, there was no measuring, no timers and no thermometers.

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(From left) Curds separating from the whey, transferring the curds into the mould, pressing the bean curd

“We are almost done,” Lin says, “Now we wait for it to boil again.” As the liquid bubbles, we see the curd separating from the whey (seems like the volcanic mud water works similarly to nigari). She gives it the slightest nudge with her ladle, and announces that it is time to go into the pressing stage.

The mixture is transferred into a cloth-lined wooden mould. She wraps up the steaming curd in the cloth gingerly and places a wooden lid atop it. Using all of her body weight, she pushes down onto it; each time she exerts strength, water runs down the sides of the mould. This continues for a few minutes until the water runs dry.

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(From left) Unveiling of the tofu, Lin cutting the tofu into squares with a chopper, volcanic mud tofu ready to be enjoyed

She overturns the box and, with bated breath, pulls back the cloth to unveil a perfect block of tofu, smooth and unblemished. Fascinated, I take a bite. The tofu, still wonderfully warm, was firm yet yielding. The taste of soybean is gentler than I imagined, and leaves a delicate fragrance in the mouth. This is tofu in its purest form, and it is an absolute delight. The unflavoured soybean milk is creamy, aromatic with a tinge of sweetness.

The freshly made volcanic mud tofu is prepared for the restaurant (prior reservations required) and customers who placed orders in advance. And, just earlier this summer, this modest ingredient made its way to the menu at the renowned restaurant RAW Taipei.

REFINED AND RE-DEFINED

Who would have thought the humble volcanic mud tofu could find a place in a contemporary fine-dining restaurant like RAW Taipei? But co-owner and native Taiwanese chef André Chiang is determined to showcase indigenous produce in the modern Taiwanese cuisine served there.

“When RAW first launched, it was during a time when the fine-dining restaurants in Taiwan preferred to use imported ingredients. But we were committed to using local Taiwanese produce. So, while restaurants bring in Iberico pork, we opted for local black pork from the Shenkeng district in New Taipei City. And we have been championing local ingredients ever since,” says Chiang.

Chiang and his team discovered volcanic mud tofu earlier this year, whilst learning about produce from Hualien. “When I first watched the video clip of the tofu making process, it reminded me of cheese making. We don’t produce cheese in Taiwan, but I thought this could be presented as a form of Taiwanese cheese,” he shares.

Which is exactly how he has used it in his dish of spaghetti vongole—he crumbles the volcanic mud tofu on top like feta. “You’d never think there is tofu in there,” he adds. “Volcanic mud tofu is more brittle than usual tofu and it is earthy, smoky and full of umami.” To enhance the natural sweetness of the tofu, it is first soaked in a seafood stock. Then clams, sea urchin, and edamame are added to create a dish resplendent with flavours of the sea.

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The dish simply listed as vongole, volcanic tofu, sesame leaf on the menu of RAW Taipei.

The tofu here, while poles apart from its former warm and modest self, has definitely piqued the interest of diners—oohs and aahs are audible from neighboring tables when the little secret was revealed.

Not many people (even Taiwanese) are familiar with local hand-crafted foodstuffs, such as volcanic mud tofu. It’s something Chiang hopes to change, using RAW as a platform to showcase Taiwanese produce. “At RAW, I wish to present something local and yet international. If you are Taiwanese, and you taste the dish, you will find something familiar. If you are a foreign guest, you will find the food unique, but you will be able to accept it.” This best sums up RAW Taipei’s philosophy behind its New Taiwanese cuisine—Chiang wishes to take the flavours of this generation and bring it to the next generation.

“To me, the traditional ‘Taiwanese’ taste is from my grandmother’s generation. But then what will be traditional during my grandson’s time? What we are doing now is for this future generation. What we are creating now is the “traditional” taste of the future.”

And sometimes, as the ladies of Mama Wen’s Volcanic Tofu will no doubt concur, to see the future, we have to look to the past.

MORE VOLCANIC MUD TOFU MAKING ADVENTURES

At Nature Experience Farm (大自然體驗農家), third generation owner Lin Shu Ping conducts engaging volcanic mud tofu making sessions for visitors (by appointment only). They still grow their own soybeans on their family farm. “They are non-genetically modified and completely organic,” Lin emphasises. The seeds are sown in February or March and harvested about 110 to 120 days later. At the moment the soybeans are still being harvested by hand, like the good old days. The soybeans are then sun-dried—soy milk brewed from sun-dried beans has a pleasant milky fragrance and would not have the “beany” flavour. At the end of the tofu-making session, the tofu is served with soy sauce and wasabi.

During the trip to Fuli, I stayed at Mingli No.13 B&B (明里13號驢行鄉村民宿 ). Zhou Yu Jie who operates the B&B, believes in providing guests with everything homegrown and home-made, and to eat local—a vision shared by her father, who grows a good portion of the organic food served there. They farm soybeans as well, which is used to make volcanic mud tofu at the B&B, says the younger Zhou, who hopes to give her guests the total Fuli experience. “The soy milk is used in the making of Hakkastyled buns (guests can book a hands-on bun making session), and served at dinner as soy milk hotpot. We also make volcanic mud tofu (hands-on session available): this is the original taste of tofu, the taste of old times.”

RAW
No.301, Le Qun 3rd Road, Taipei City, Taiwan (R.O.C.). Tel: +886 2 8501 5800; www.raw.com.tw

Wen Ma Ma Huo Shan Dou Fu (溫媽媽火山豆腐 )
花蓮縣富里鄉羅山村14鄰33 號
No.33, 14th Neighborhood, Luoshan Village, Fuli Township, Hualien County 98342, Taiwan (R.O.C.). Tel: +886 3 882 1360

Nature Experience Farm (大自然體驗農家 )
花蓮縣富里鄉羅山村12 鄰58 號
No.58, 12th Neighborhood, Luoshan Village, Fuli Township, Hualien County 98342, Taiwan (R.O.C.). Tel: +886 3 882 1352

Mingli No.13 B&B (明里13號驢行鄉村民宿)
花蓮縣富里鄉明里村 1 鄰13 號
No.13, 1st Neighborhood, Ming Vil., Fuli Township, Hualien County 98343, Taiwan (R.O.C.). Tel: +886 3 883 1589

Freelance food writer and editor Xie Huiqun counts eating and cooking as two of the most fulfilling activities in life. Her current research interests are in the areas of traditional Chinese dishes, and Chinese herbal cuisine.