The World's Most Unusual Tofu
August 22, 2014
Volcanic mud is the secret to this Taiwanese village's artisanal tofu. Michelle Tchea gets her hands dirty in pursuit of knowledge… and lunch.
Published on Aug 22, 2014
Necessity is the mother of invention. So it was that the unhappy food shortages during the 50-year Japanese occupation of Formosa gave way to a unique and deliciously emblematic innovation in Taiwanese cuisine: volcanic mud tofu. This toothsome tale begins four hours south of Taipei in the modest villages of Hualien, with their panoramic views of the Pacific, scenic backdrop of Central Mountains—and shifty location, caught between the Eurasian and Philippine Sea tectonic plates. Here, in Luoshan township especially, the lively subterranean thermal activity creates mud volcanoes, burbling hills of wet clay rich in minerals like calcium and magnesium. The strange alchemy of this geodynamic phenomenon is the magic ingredient for Luoshan bean curd, and offers a distinct earthy soybean flavor unlike any commercial tofu.
"Under Japanese rule, many of our cattle and corn were given away," says Lin Yun Zhi. "Our farmers didn't have much variety in our diets, so our parents were encouraged to use local resources, making tofu from volcanic water." Only five families continue to carry out this 92-year-old tradition, which has been revived just in the last 10 years. "In order to promote farmers in the area, we are remembering skills our parents taught us," Lin tells me. Lin is now a master mud-tofu maker, and it's from him that I learn to craft this more natural bean curd. True Luoshan tofu requires no additives, not even the coagulant edible gypsum, on which most store-bought tofu relies. The process begins with an overnight soaking of the organic soybeans, handpicked by Lin and his family. Lin pours soybeans into a handmade grinder and starts churning. I try to follow suit, but realize my upper-body strength pales in comparison to that of this 70-year-old man. He rescues me without breaking a sweat. As the beans reduce to pulp, soymilk begins to drain forth. Together, we move swiftly, pouring the pearly prize into a large silver pot over a small straw fire. Next we gently add the volcanic water. This was collected as a bucket of mud three days ago, but after 72 hours of resting, the silt and impurities have settled to the bottom and we scoop the clear mineral-rich water off the top to add to the heated soymilk. "We are using only the best ingredients," Lin stresses, "organic nongenetically modified soy beans, natural mud volcano water…that's it."
Under heat, curds form and Lin scoops up the floating pieces. I volunteer to compress the tofu into the square shapes you see on supermarket shelves. Our efforts complete, the tofu sits in snow-white cubes begging to be eaten. I acquiesce, sandwiching my chopsticks with a thick, white sliver drizzled in a fine line of soy sauce, and take a delicate mouthful. I'm bowled over by the sapidity and bite. This is not the airy spongy stuff of your average Chinese restaurant; the texture is tender yet firm, each tiny square packed with fresh organic soybeans. It is by far the most fragrant and savory tofu I've ever tasted.
Dwellers of Luoshan, this intimate, pastoral township that's all small inns and family-run restaurants, will tell you that it's the minerals from the volcanic mud that fill the tofu with such rich flavor. I'd add that there is a special sweet satisfaction in enjoying the fruits of my own labor. And, there's the knowledge that—despite a recent influx of mostly Taiwanese, Japanese and Korean tourists clamoring for this specialty—I'm eating a meal that so few try. Only here, in the hills of Luoshan, do the generations-old secrets of volcanic tofu still bubble up from the earth.
Tofu from May Hawthorn Restaurant
There are daily flights to Hualien Airport from Taipei Songshan Airport, or you can take the twoto three-hour train trip from Taipei to Hualien. Once you arrive, take a five-minute taxi ride to May Hawthorn Inn for the tofu cooking classes.
Tofu Cooking Class Nature Experience Farm, No. 58 Luoshan Village, Hualien; +886 3 882 1189.
May Hawthorn Restaurant and Inn 53 East Lake Village, Hualien; +886 3 882 1811.