Jenny Yang squeezes a quarter of a tofu, still hot from the produce line, into my gloved hand. Around us, workers in hairnets and slip-on socks navigate the steamy industrial kitchen—in stark contrast to the dry Chicago winter winds blowing outside—where they grind and boil soybeans, eventually turning the resulting milk into thick, crisp slabs of ivory tofu. .
She suggests that I put the cube in my mouth. I do, expecting to taste it. . . Well, nothingness and maybe an edamame hiss. Instead, it’s silky, clean, subtly earthy, sweet, and a little nutty. This, I realize, is what tofu is supposed to taste like.
“Different, isn’t it?” Yang says with a sarcastic smile.
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The first time I bought tofu was in high school. At the time, I was practicing a very dedicated vegan area. Armed with a shoddy copy of “Vegan Epicure” and scanned pages of “Living Vegetable for Dummies,” I asked my mom to take me to my local health food store to stock up. I bravely wandered the aisles—which smelled of caricature, like patchouli incense—and packed a basket of expensive ingredients we could have had at Kroger down the block.
We turned the corner and faced a wall of chilled tofu. “You’ll need protein,” she said, throwing a block into the basket. Neither of us had any idea what to do with it. Once we got home, I stripped the film from the plastic tofu container and flipped it over on a work surface. It was off-white, gelatinous and tasted a bit like wet cardboard when I cut it into strips.
soybean (Stephen Butt)
My dad joked that it probably tasted better grilled (and I didn’t know he was right!). After a few days of watching the tofu shake every time I open the fridge, I mixed it into a smoothie for a drink. I didn’t realize there was a difference between strong and soft tofu.
I won’t try tofu again for a few years, when I finally prepared it properly in a vibrant lemon curry in a Vietnamese restaurant. My opinion at the time was that it was something that took on flavor beautifully – but had a bit of a flavor in itself.
Tofu Yang — sold under the brand names Jenny Tofu and Phoenix Bean — differs because it is a small batch, which enables her and her team to take care of their product. The soybeans that Yang uses come from regional farms, mostly in Illinois. Their tofu is free of additives and preservatives.
It’s also made with the rich fat soy milk that her company produces and sells. In fact, it’s the same soy milk that Yang bought before she bought the small Phoenix Bean factory back in 2007, becoming the company’s third owner.
“I lived two blocks away and would bring my daughter to the park under the block,” Yang recalls. “I passed by and saw a sign in the window saying there was something about ‘soybean’ inside. So, I put my head in, and it smelled really good. I remember the screen door was wide open, and the moment I walked in, I saw the staff were packing Tofu there.”
Yang walked in and immediately placed an order. It became a weekly ritual for her and her daughter, both of whom are lactose intolerant. This ritual lasted for five years.
“It was so fresh,” she adds. “It was like I won the jackpot.”
One day, she passed by and noticed that production had stopped. The owner was thinking of closing the shop. I joked with the staff about not being able to close because she relied on them for her weekly fresh soybeans.
Lumps of crispy tofu (Stephen Butt)“Then they start joking, would you like to take over?” she says.
That joke soon turned into reality. By then, Yang had spent decades working in corporate positions at a major airline, the China Chamber of Commerce in Chicago and Sarah Lee. The stress of frequent travel and daily three-hour commutes to and from an office park in suburban Illinois was eroding. Speaking with her family, she soon became the proud owner of a miniature tofu factory in a Vietnamese enclave in the city’s Edgewater neighborhood.
After a few years of continuing to process and sell this space, Yang faced a major decision.
“Shall we stay as a mom and pop shop for the Asian community?” You remember. “Or shall we go out?”
After deciding to expand their market access, Yang and her staff began taking their produce to farmers’ markets. At that point, they had 18 different types of tofu – ranging from very soft to turmeric – which they spread on a large folding table. At first, there were growing pains.
“I felt like sometimes people would turn away from our table,” Yang says with a laugh. “Sometimes they ask, ‘Oh, what kind of cheese do you sell?'” ”
Owner Jenny Yang at her new factory under construction (Stephen Butt)
But they persevered.
In a special move in Chicago, Yang has teamed up with a local pizzeria and will make sample slices of pizza topped with tofu. That was enough to get people to line up. Eventually, these lines will go around the block.
Yang is now expanding her small tofu empire to a wider audience. She purchased two additional buildings in the same block as the original Phoenix Bean Factory. One will serve as a storefront for prepared tofu salads, packaged items and soy milk, while the other will serve as an updated processing facility.
It’s a must as Jenny’s Tofu expands into regional vendors like Mariano’s and Whole Foods—a welcome development though challenging. Many supermarkets want tofu that is shelf stable for up to 90 days, which goes against the New Yang spirit.
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They don’t like to freeze their products for shipping, because doing so would change the texture of the fresh tofu. This limits where their products can be supplied.
“This was a difficult process,” she says.
It’s a sacrifice they are willing to make to maintain product quality, especially since there are a large number of new tofu makers all over the United States. Heiwa Tofu is a small family business in Rockport, Maine; Meiji Made in Gardena, California; Uta tofu is a Portland favorite. The Roots produces fresh tofu in Louisville, Kentucky.
So, the next time you plan to buy a can of tofu, consider seeing who makes the freshest in your area. The high quality is totally worth it, whether you plan on enjoying it raw topped with a spring onion-ginger sauce or smothered in mapo tofu. And if you ever find yourself in Chicago, head into one of Yang’s stores. The screen door will open, and they’re still selling fresh tofu to passersby – just like the old days.