Tantalizing tofu

Peter Wei gave up his Taipei-based job as a biotech specialist to pursue a career making top quality tofu in rural Hualien

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Staff reporter

Wed, Oct 24, 2012 - Page 12

It is easy to get confused by the debate surrounding what sustainable agriculture actually means either for the farmer or the consumer. For Peter Wei (魏明毅) and his wife, who have established a small organic tofu factory in Shoufeng Township (壽豐鄉) in Hualien County, the issue is relatively simple: “We wanted to create a tofu that we knew was safe,” Ho said, taking time off from the taxing production cycle of his small factory located in the semi-abandoned complex of buildings that had once been part of Taiwan Sugar’s extensive operations in the region.

The former biotech specialist had decided to relocate from Taipei to Hualien to find something “more worthwhile,” and, looking for some way to secure an income, he happened on the idea of making tofu. “My wife is a vegetarian and finding good quality tofu is not always easy,” he said.

“At the time we were thinking of moving to Hualien, I started to take note of media reports about tofu containing high levels of preservatives and other chemicals. These stories come around pretty much every year. I thought perhaps, since I intended to move to Hualien, that I could do better.”

‘Dem beans

“We thought making tofu would be a relatively simple enterprise. All you need is good water, good beans and clean equipment,” he said.

It was nowhere as simple as he thought, and now in its third year, Wei said that the enterprise is only now breaking even.

“Every enterprise has its area of specialist knowledge. I thought that making tofu would be much simpler than working in a biotech lab, but you must realize that soybeans are a living thing, and there is a huge body of knowledge in handling beans. Old beans or new beans can respond quite differently to processing.”

Using traditional tofu-making technology, and without the addition of chemicals and preservatives, Wei’s company, Mimanten (味萬田), produces tofu (豆腐), soy milk (豆漿) and soft tofu curds (豆花) that have a hand-craft richness and complexity that rival the best on the market. They are far from being the only such products available, but Wei’s commitment to producing “something good you can trust,” has given his product a niche fan base around the country, which is catered to through the islandwide courier system.

Unexpected challenges

Wei said that his dream of sustainable production of tofu encountered various unexpected challenges.

“Soybean products are really interesting,” Wei said. “It can be quite different depending on the manufacturer. There are just so many variables.”

The beans themselves are important, and Wei has opted to use non-GM beans from the US.

“When we began, we simply thought that if we bought expensive beans we should have a guarantee of getting pretty good quality,” Wei said. That didn’t turn out to be the case, and Wei and his business partner have had to make a number of visits to the US, where they source their beans, to find high quality non-GM beans that they feel comfortable with.

Wei’s choice is not without controversy. One local family surnamed Tu criticized Mimanten for their use of imported beans, saying that local producers should be using locally grown beans.

Wei defended his choice of using US beans on the basis of cost, stating that the steeper price of locally grown beans would make the enterprise prohibitive.

“We use the best beans we can find,” he said, but feels strongly about providing a product that can compete with market prices, an insistence that is not always shared by his organic agriculture compatriots.

While the beans are important, the quality of the water is important as well, and Wei said that he had made some unexpected discoveries. “We came here because we believed that the water would be more pure,” Wei said. “We made the additional discovery that the water here is slightly alkaline; it has a pH of 7.8 to 8.2, and this is a great help in the production of bean-based products, since the protein in the beans dissolves more efficiently in this high pH water.”

Moody beans

Wei has also incorporated some of his biotech expertise into developing Mimanten’s production process. Most tofu production in Taiwan follows on from the Japanese method, which favors the cooking of the soymilk with the bean pulp. Wei said that he found filtering before cooking produced slightly different results, due to the better heat conduction of the filtered liquid. “Cooking the unfiltered soy can lead to uneven heating, and often, to ensure that the soy is cooked through, it is overcooked,” Wei said. By cooking the soy milk after it is filtered, he says that Mimaten achieves a more even heating, that leads to a superior texture.

Wei said that he had made various decisions about the production process, but added that he still lacks experience handling the “moods” of the beans. “Things can vary from day to day, and it is a constantly exciting challenge to find out why there are subtle differences in the product,” Wei said.

Wei spoke at length about using environmental factors to maintain the best quality beans. Low temperature storage, high quality stainless steel equipment, even heating and other factors are all ways of keeping harmful microorganisms to a minimum without the use of chemicals.

The environment is an important part of Wei’s thinking, and this goes well beyond how climatic conditions can affect his soybeans.

Wei said he had wanted to relocate to a rural environment while he was still young enough to do something and when he still could engage with the community around him.

He had invested considerable effort in reducing the impact of his wastewater, which he says is so nutrient rich that it is bad for the environment. Fortunately, the premises that he occupies were once a soy sauce factory, and has underground storage — originally intended for the safekeeping of the terracotta jars used in fermenting — but which is now used for the bioprocessing of the wastewater, so that it is stripped of most ecologically harmful elements before being pumped back into the environment.

With his knowledge of biotech and his commitment to using a natural method of production, Wei is trying to combine a lifestyle choice with a serious commitment to what that choice entails. Good quality tofu and soy milk is a by-product of these choices, and as Wei sees it, is the beginning of a re-energizing of rural Taiwan by young professionals with ideals, capital, and a commitment to rediscovering Nature’s bounty. Information about Mimanten can be found at www.mimanten.com.