Andrea Nguyen said before writing her cookbook, “Asian Tofu: Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook It at Home,” she was tired of “tofu-bashing” and “tofu-haters” in the United States and wanted to show people that tofu was more than just a “bland, white cake in water.”
While working on the cookbook, she found that part of why Americans and people in other western countries do not appreciate tofu is because it is usually not prepared in ways that allow it to shine as a unique ingredient.
“When I moved to Santa Cruz, California, we went to this vegetarian restaurant and the tofu was served under cheese sauce and it was the most disgusting thing,” said Nguyen, who has traveled through Asia to study tofu manufacturing and preparation. “The sauces were made to hide the tofu. The tofu was not allowed to express itself. In Asia, tofu is this beautiful thing, it’s the equivalent of fresh mozzarella or freshly made bread.” The softness, versatility and natural flavors of this food that has been prepared and enjoyed for approximately 2,000 years are not culinary weaknesses, but actually strengths — ones that Phoenix Bean Tofu, a small Chicago tofu factory, let’s shine in each of its signature tofu preparations.
The freshest tofu is warm — pulled right from the tofu press — and melt-in-your-mouth delicate with an indulgent, creamy taste. From across the room, the smell of hot oil permeates as someone makes fried tofu puffs which are golden brown, crisp and full of air bubbles, which gives them a lighter, almost spongy texture. In a large pot, there are square slices of tofu soaking up an expertly crafted smokey, five-spice marinade. Breaking apart a chewy piece, the outer layer is a rich, dark brown, while the inside is dense and still lighter in color.
These are just a few of the tofu preparations that have been perfected over the past 36 years by the dedicated staff at the Phoenix Bean factory in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood.
Phoenix Bean’s owner Jenny Yang knows the tofu-making process like the back of her hand and seeing the care and precision with which she runs the factory, it seems like she’s raised it from the seed of an idea. But Yang, a business school graduate originally from Taiwan, was actually once just a customer and fan of Phoenix Bean’s products.
Yang was asking them why they were closing when one of the owners said to her, “Young lady, what do you know about business? Do you want to take over?,” to which she replied, “Okay.”
“I was walking around the neighborhood and we walked by here and there’s a big Chinese sign that said something related to bean,” Yang said. “I put my head in and I said, ‘What do you sell here?’ and they said ‘Oh, we sell tofu here.’ I saw them making the [tofu] puffs and I said ‘This is traditional.’ So, I bought a few pieces and it was just like home.”
Yang was a regular customer, until one day she came by the factory and it was empty except for the owners, who said they were going to close their doors. Yang was asking them why they were closing when one of the owners said to her, “Young lady, what do you know about business? Do you want to take over?,” to which she replied, “Okay.”
Soon after that conversation, Yang said her and her husband decided to buy the business from the original owners. That was almost 13 years ago.
Some people still work at Phoenix Bean from when the previous owners ran the company and most of the employees are from the neighborhood, Yang said. There are currently about 30 staff members and each plays an important role in the process that yields Phoenix Bean’s primary product — tofu.
The process starts with dried soybeans delivered to the facility in huge polypropylene bags from Midwest farms. Yang said all the soybeans are certified non-GMO and they try to source organic soybeans whenever possible.
Phoenix Bean’s tofu-making process is different from most others as it does not use dry soybeans, instead the soybeans are soaked in large containers until they just begin to sprout.
“A lot of people cannot digest legumes,” Yang said. “[Our tofu] is sprouted so you’re not eating a legume, you’re eating a plant.”
After sprouting, the beans are transferred into a machine that looks similar to an industrial-sized juicer. Like most juicers, this one produces two things — a grainy pulp and an opaque soy milk. The pulp, commonly referred to as okara, is not being used for any food products at Phoenix Bean right now, but Yang said they are testing different options including an okara flour, which is naturally gluten-free.
Some of the soy milk is bottled and sold, but what is not is used to make tofu. The soy milk for tofu is poured into tubs where it sits and forms a whey and curd. The resulting curd is pressed for different amounts of time to create extra soft, soft, firm and extra firm tofus. The large rectangular blocks of pressed tofu rest in water until they are eventually cut and packaged. Yang said after the process is done, the tofu is kept on ice or in walk-in fridges and sold within a couple of days because it does not contain any preservatives.
The entire process from soaking soybeans to product packaging is done on-site in a facility just over 3,000 square feet. In addition to the soy milk and uncooked tofu, Phoenix Bean also makes soy noodles, tofu skin, fried tofu, mung bean sprouts and an array of pre-packaged tofu dishes like a Chinese tofu peanut salad and spicy tofu stir fry.
Phoenix Bean has already grown from just supplying to Asian grocery stores and restaurants, like it did when Yang first took over. Now, Phoenix Bean is at farmers markets, local grocery stores and sold through companies like Farmer’s Fridge and Peapod. Some Phoenix Bean products are also stocked in Whole Foods around the Midwest, under the brand Jenny’s.
Yang said she sees this growth as a starting point and has big aspirations for a recently acquired storefront and warehouse right down the street from the current factory. For now, the storefront is being used as a kitchen and the warehouse still needs renovations, but Yang said when they begin fully using these new spaces, they will be able to up production and take on new opportunities.
Over the past couple years, Yang said Phoenix Bean has put more effort into the development of new ways of marketing products, especially considering the rise in popularity of lifestyles like veganism.
When Yang first started running Phoenix Bean, she said she didn’t think of tofu as being a vegan or a health food, she just knew it was a quality product that she believed in.
While not a lot has changed about Phoenix Bean’s products, Yang said the ways that the products are being used and delivered to customers has evolved. For example, Eli’s Cheesecake, a Chicago cheesecake shop that has been around since the 1980’s, started making a vegan Belgian chocolate cheesecake using Phoenix Bean tofu.
Yang said there is increased interest in finding vegan options and plant-based proteins, but Phoenix Bean still does face negative preconceptions of tofu and soy-based products.
“It’s a big task for us to try to clarify, to tell people tofu is not bad for you,” Yang said. “Tofu can be healthy for you, but nothing in extreme is good for you. You just need to have a balanced diet.”
“That is extremely hypocritical of the food media community. There’s a certain, frankly, kind of racist quality about it. Why attack little tofu?”
Nguyen said in her experience tofu often receives more criticism on its nutritional value or GMO status than new plant-based protein options like the Impossible Burger, which is also soy-based and does contain genetically modified soybeans.
“That is extremely hypocritical of the food media community,” Nguyen said. “There’s a certain, frankly, kind of racist quality about it. Why attack little tofu?”
According to Harvard’s School of Health, while there’s conflicting information available on soy products, recent studies show soy has a beneficial or neutral effect on people’s health and “soy is a nutrient-dense source of protein that can safely be consumed several times a week, and is likely to provide health benefits — especially when eaten as an alternative to red and processed meat.”
Nguyen and Yang agree when it comes to cooking good tofu dishes, fresh tofu makes all the difference in flavor, texture and capability. While places like Phoenix Bean make fresh tofu easy to buy, both Nguyen and Yang said the tofu-making process is easier than many people think and having fresh-made tofu at home can really change how it is viewed and used as an ingredient.
“You don’t have to go squeeze on a cow, it’s like this magical thing,” Nguyen said. “The first time I made soy milk and rendered it into tofu it wasn’t even a good block of tofu, but I was amazed. Absolutely amazed.”
Spicy Tofu Stir Fry
This recipe has been adapted from a Phoenix Bean original recipe. More of Phoenix Bean’s recipes can be found here.
Phoenix Bean sells this stir fry as a pre-packaged tofu dish, but now you can make it yourself. This is my favorite way to prepare this dish, but you can also the tofu and sauce with noodles, more veggies or any other way you like. If you don’t have access to Phoenix Bean’s fried extra firm tofu, you can fry your own or check out your local Asian grocery store to see if they stock a similar product. Happy cooking!
- 10 oz. Phoenix Bean fried extra firm tofu
- 4 cups cooked white or brown rice
- Head of broccoli, cut into florets
- ½ yellow onion, chopped
- ½ red bell pepper, chopped
- 1 tbsp. avocado or other vegetable oil
- 2 tsp. hot garlic chili sauce
- 1 tbsp. Bragg liquid aminos (or soy sauce)
- ½ tsp. brown sugar
- ½ tsp. black bean sauce (optional)
- 1 tsp. gomasio for garnish (optional)
- Cilantro or chopped green onion for garnish (optional)
- Rinse tofu, pat dry and cut into cubes
- Heat oil on medium-high heat
- Add tofu, onion, red pepper, broccoli, liquid aminos and stir fry two minutes
- Add hot garlic chili sauce, black bean sauce and brown sugar
- Stir fry another four minutes or until tofu is warm
- Serve atop a bowl of cooked rice, garnish with gomasio, cilantro and/or chopped green onion