Taylor’s Yard is just a few fashionably shod feet away from the vintage clothes emporiums that line this section of Brick Lane, just north of the old Truman brewery. This famous street mixes fashion, art and design with the businesses of the original immigrant Jewish and Bangladeshi communities, bagel bakeries at the top, Indian restaurants and grocery stores at the other end. It’s the last place you would expect to find an artisan tofu maker at work. But here, in an industry of one, Neil McClennan produces his organic tofu, which he sells under the apt name, Clean Bean.
Neil McClennan fell in love with the taste of tofu whilst living in China’s Sichuan Province, in an area filled with tofu snack bars. Though no lover of tofu when he arrived Neil soon got a taste for Ma Po Doufu a spicy bean, pork and tofu dish that is a regional speciality. Its an oddly named dish – Ma Po Doufu translates as ‘pock marked faced old woman tofu’. When Neil came home he was so disappointed by the quality of the tofu on offer that he decided to make some himself. His first batch was a success and proved to be a good omen for his business, which has grown steadily through word of mouth.
On the morning I visited a shipment of organic soya beans had just been delivered. The small outer office was packed with brown paper sacks of organic beans, the paper stamped with Chinese characters. I put my coat down on a stack of sacks and looked through to the windowless concrete floored room where Neil makes the tofu. What was once an old leather workshop is now filled with a collection of unusual looking boilers, cookers and tanks some connected with pipes wrapped in tin foil. In the corner sits an old blue steam boiler, its base corroded in a slightly alarming way. You would never guess what is made here, that is until you look down and see the soya beans caught in the drain cover, a spiral of chalky beige beans and silver.
Tofu making shares some of the processes of cheese making, a milk is set to form a curd and then cut. Making tofu takes about 24 hours, the beans are soaked overnight, rinsed then cooked to a pulp, mashed, steamed and filtered to obtain a ‘milk’. Once the milk has been drained off a coagulating agent is added and a curd is made. It might sounds simple, but good tofu making takes years to perfect. There are so many variables in the process that a momentary lapse of concentration can ruin a whole day’s work. Far from finding the work boring Neil finds the calm focus required inspiring, tofu making days are good days.
If you’re used to the plastic taste of processed tofu think again. Clean Bean’s traditionally made tofu has its own unique taste. In the same way that an artisan cheese maker creates an individual cheese so an artisan tofu maker stamps their tofu with their own personality, experience and skill. Clean Bean tofu has a firm texture, its good for frying or roasting but soft enough to eat in soup, it has clean, fresh tangy taste. Neil uses nigari, a very salty brine that’s a by-product of the sea salt industry to set the tofu. It’s the traditional Japanese way of making tofu but Neil uses Chinese beans and this gives his tofu a unique taste. The other impact on the taste is feed back from customers. In the beginning Neil sold his tofu in Spitalfields’ organic market and later Borough market. He was able to talk directly to customers and find out what they liked best. He’s adamant that when made properly tofu is a food with a wide appeal. You don’t have to vegan or even vegetarian (Neil is neither) to like the taste of this tofu.
I asked Neil what Chinese customers thought of his tofu. To the Chinese says Neil it tastes Japanese and vice versa. Most aren’t impressed when he tells them that he makes it himself. Tofu making is a low status profession in China, it’s the fall back job for any peasant who has lost his land and had to move to the city.
Basic tofu making is simple to learn but like any craft takes years to hone. Neil has had to learn everything himself, starting with books and in more recent years aided by the connective power of the Internet. Artisan skills are hard to uncover, if you ask a Japanese tofu maker how to make tofu they will respond with the briefest of directions. Neil has been making tofu for 15 years but last year he had a breakthrough, he spent the day with a master tofu maker in Shanghai. This man showed him how to stir the tofu, the action was specific and it made a big difference. I asked him to show me but understandably it was a secret Neil wasn’t willing to share.
The story of Clean Bean ends with a surprising image. Look into Taylor’s yard on a warm summers day and you must just see something unusual – the bright green leaves of a soya bean plant pushing up between the cobbles. Not what you would expect in this ultra urban environment but sometimes soya beans spill out from Neil’s workshop and lodge in the cracks between the stones. In warm, wet weather the beans germinate and small green fronds push up through the compacted earth – new life in the heart of an ancient city.