Neil McLennan is an interesting man. His quest for the perfect tofu began 20 years ago when he was living in China’s Sichuan Province and regularly eating a dish that roughly translates as ‘old woman’s pock-marked face’. Despite its unappealing name, the dish was a favourite, and one he wanted to recreate on his return to England, only to find that the tofu available was poor quality and simply didn’t compare in terms of taste and texture. So he set out to make it himself, first in his own kitchen and today in a little workshop off London’s bustling Brick Lane.
As we stood among the bags of soya beans, Neil talked me through the process. It’s remarkably simple: a stainless steel vat holds beans that, in the colder months, are soaked overnight – this can be done in a few hours in summer. The beans are then transferred to a steel steamer where they are cooked and mashed. The residual ‘milk’ is strained off and a strong ‘brine’ added as the milk is stirred with a paddle to create curds. This part of the process is the most important as the temperature and the stirring is crucial; too hot, too cold, too fast or too slow and the curds won’t set. Over the years Neil has learnt never to allow himself to be distracted while stirring is occurring: a momentary lapse in concentration and the tofu is ruined. From here the curds are pressed so that the whey runs off and, hey presto, tofu.
Feng Sushi has been using Clean Bean tofu since the beginning and we’re not the only ones to appreciate how good it is – the Japan Centre is now buying Neil’s tofu – but in spite of his success, Neil’s not interested in ‘hitting the big time’ or selling out. What he loves about his work is the process. It’s taken years to perfect his tofu-making technique but now he’s found his stroke, or stir, he intends to carry on in his delightful artisanal way. And we, for one, are happy to hear it.