As part of our recognition of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, we are taking a closer look at this versatile ingredient.
For more than 30 years, Edgewater's Phoenix Bean has been the go-to source for all kinds of cooks in the region. They're undergoing an expansion now, thanks to a renewed demand for soy milk and tofu that translates to roughly two-thousand pounds per day.
They start early every morning at Phoenix Bean in Edgewater, around six, having soaked their locally-grown soybeans until they've doubled in size.
"So we grow them, we know where they come from and then we use it every three weeks from the farmer that grows the beans for us," said Jenny Yang, the owner of Phoenix Bean.
The soaked beans are vacuumed up, sent to a hopper that combines them with water and grinds them up into a mash. That mash goes into a high-pressure cooker for about 10 minutes, and when it emerges, it's split into the powdery soy meal, as well as the silky soy milk.
They add calcium sulfate to the liquid, which jump-starts the curding process, essentially the "firming up" much like cheese is made. The excess liquid has to be removed, again, by hand, and then the curds are transferred to a large, steel mold that's lined with a mesh material, kind of like cheesecloth.
The mesh is folded over the loose curds, and steel weights are placed on top, pushing out all of the liquid. It sits here for six minutes. After the liquid is squeezed out, the square blocks are soaked in water and packaged immediately with more filtered water.
But the range of uses is impressive. Sure, you can cube it up and serve with dipping sauces, but they also make soy noodles, soy cheese; turmeric-colored yellow tofu that's been smoked or fried.. Also, a fantastic spicy tofu that's wok-fried with chilies, fermented black beans and garlic, making a perfect side dish to any Chinese meal.
"We have soft tofu to make stir-fry with it, we can put soup in there; extra firm, extra soft tofu use for desserts, we can put in stew, and then we baked them, marinate them, so it's all kind of ways, very creative ways, millions of ways to do it," said Yang.
The factory is also a tiny store but you wouldn't know it from looking at it. They will sell some of their packaged tofu directly to you if you show up, but again, you'll find it in grocery stores all over the region. They now produce 13 types of tofu, incidentally.
Phoenix Bean Tofu
5438 N. Broadway