Bean There 

The tofu factory behind the tofu restaurant.

Tofu manufacture is wet work. May, my guide through China Tofu's plant in south Hayward, strides through the factory in her stilettos, high above the puddles, but my sneaker-clad feet must step more carefully -- water flows everywhere. Half a dozen workers, decked out in yellow rubber aprons and high rubber boots, ladle big bowls of loose soybean curds into cloth-lined trays. The water immediately starts to drain out of the pans, even before they're stacked into the press. From the front door to the production line floats the humid, chalky, and surprisingly clean smell of hot tofu.

There's not much to tofu -- it's just soybeans, water, and a coagulating agent. From such a basic two-thousand-year-old recipe, China Tofu's owners -- the three Ling brothers -- make an incredibly diverse range of tofu products: Black-bean soy milk. Marinated fried tofu squares. Fettuccine-looking soy noodles. Tofu-skin knots. Tubs of sweetened soy custard.

Here's the process: Dried beans -- GMO-free, the labels on the bags assure -- are first soaked overnight in vats of hot water, then sucked through a series of tubes into a combination grinder/cooker/filter. A steaming hot slurry gushes out of the machine into big plastic tubs. For soy milk, stop here, dilute with water, and bottle. Without stabilizers and brown-rice syrup to make it resemble cow's milk for Western palates, Chinese-style soy milk keeps for only a few days, tastes thinner, and has a more pronounced bean flavor.

After this point, human hands take over. The workers measure calcium sulfate into the tubs to make the soy coagulate into soft, cream-colored curds. They pour the curds into trays -- high-walled for tofu blocks, very low-walled for tofu noodles -- and then press them. Unsurprisingly, the more water you press out, the firmer the tofu.

As I watch, a young worker removes the trays from the press. With no guidelines, just a knife, he cuts the hot tofu expertly into cubes and flings them into a massive bath of cold water. Across the room, another worker surveys a shallow, segmented bath. The workers let some coagulated slurry settle, and then slowly lift off the golden film that forms on top and hang it to dry. Voilà: tofu skin. "Tofu skin is very healthy, since it's mostly protein," May says.

All in all, the plant produces two thousand pounds of soy products a day, and the Ling brothers also import more elaborate meat substitutes from Taiwan. Most of China Tofu's wares are sold through Asian supermarkets and restaurants, but you can buy them all -- at much lower prices -- at the restaurant and the factory showroom. The latter is open Mondays through Thursdays at 1781 Addison Way (at Stratford Road), Hayward. For further information, call 510-782-9728.

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