Author(s): Ally Muszynski and Kimika Padilla
March 18, 2019
As a vegetarian and someone who loves to cook, I know my way around tofu. I have been buying the blocks of extra-firm from the grocery store for years. Once, I even once tried to make my own tofu at home (a complete failure, sadly). But it wasn’t until I tried Phoenix Bean’s products that I realized just how delicious tofu can be, even without seasoning.
Our first glimpse of Phoenix Bean Tofu at the factory
Walking into the small foyer of the Phoenix Bean tofu factory, I was immediately entranced by the amazing smells. The factory was warm, fragrant and inviting—not your typical image of food production. Jenny Yang, the owner, greeted us warmly and ushered us to put our coats away and don a hair net, shoe covers, gloves and an apron instead. She told us about some of the products she makes, including the classics, like fried tofu and soymilk, as well as less typical varieties, like tofu puffs, soybean noodles, and tofu skins. After we were dressed, we peeked into the factory through a large window to catch a glimpse of the process. Then, Jenny led us in.
The machine that crushed the tofu and separated the milk from the curd.
The floors were wet with soybean oil. There were buckets of sprouted soybeans scattered near the front next to a large machine. This machine sucks up the sprouted soybeans to crush them, separating a creamy curd from a runny milk-like liquid. The curd enters a large vat to curdle then solidify. Next, workers take the warm crumble, which behaves almost like moon sand, and pour into a large tray. They toss it by hand to make it compact. Finally, it is cooled in large rectangular sheets to become a thick block that most people think about when they think of tofu.
During the tour, Jenny picked up a sheet of unseasoned tofu from the production line and tore us each a small chunk. It was still warm, and full of flavor. She did the same with the fried tofu, which had a meatier texture. Finally, she tore a piece of five-spice smoked tofu for us. This was my favorite of the three, as the smoker made it toothsome and the spices gave it a sweet and savory flavor.
Workers crumbling the tofu before it sets.
Jenny then proceeded to take us to the back room, a dark temperature-controlled area where she sprouts the soybeans. There were several large tubs of the soaked soybeans, which expand as they rehydrate. She said she purchases her non-GMO soybeans locally from a certified organic supplier. The entire tofu factory is also certified for organic production, meaning it has to pass regular inspections and meet stringent procurement and process requirements. Next, Jenny led us even further back to the loading dock, where she receives the non-GMO soybeans by the truckload. Farmers send the soybeans in huge burlap bags, which the tofu factory saves and returns to farmers to be re-used. Next to the loading dock, there is also a storage area for the final products which are shipped in bulk to food providers like Bon Appetit and UChicago Dining, as well as individually packaged and sold at grocery stores like Marianos and Whole Foods.
Finally, Jenny ushered us to a second building, a small storefront where her employees both prepare and sell her value-added tofu products. She presented an array of six flavors, from teriyaki to Asian smoked tofu. Every single one was more delicious than the last. One member of the group even admitted she didn’t like tofu before she had tried Jenny’s, but now has found a new protein to use in her kitchen!
Some of Jenny's delicious tofu flavors. Top row from left to right: Sweet & Spicy Eggplant Tofu Salad, Thai (Green) Peanuts Tofu Salad, Asian Smoke Tofu with Chili Salad. Bottom row from left to right: Spicy Stir Fry Tofu Salad, Teriyaki Tofu with Shitake Mushrooms & Sesame Seeds, Chinese (Red) Peanuts Tofu Salad)
The tofu tasted amazing, but what was even better was the conversation we shared about being a woman of color in business. Jenny told us that before owning Phoenix Bean tofu factory, she had worked a high-paying job at United Airlines. She lived down the street from the tofu factory, and would take her kids on a walk, then stop in to purchase tofu all the time. One day, she wandered in and was told she could not buy as the company was closing. She lamented the loss, and explained to owner how much she loved his tofu products. The former owner told her that she could buy it, and so she did, and the rest is history. The tofu factory has stood at the same location for 39 years, and its production has expanded under Jenny’s leadership.
Jenny Yang, owner of Phoenix Bean Tofu
Jenny also took pride in the fact that the other business owners on her block were women as well. She said they help each other out and share a sense of comradery, because being a foreign woman in a position of power is tough. Our tour happened to be on International Women’s Day, and Jenny recounted an argument she had with a mechanic after the contractor goofed up the work order, and overcharged her by a lot, telling Jenny that she didn’t understand how the machines in her factory worked. Despite challenges like these, Jenny knew she wanted to run as both the figurehead of the business and manage operations. She proves doubters wrong every day by making delicious, sustainable, and healthy meals at the Phoenix Bean tofu factory. You can support her business by purchasing products from Marianos or Whole Foods, and if you live in Hyde Park, Phoenix Bean tofu (both unflavored and ready-made) is also sold at Hyde Park Produce!
Acknowledgements: A special thank you to Jenny Yang, the owner of Phoenix Bean, for her generosity and hospitality. Also, thank you to Bon Appetit and UChicago Dining, for organizing the tour of their tofu provider and inviting us students to join! If you are interested in learning more about Phoenix Bean Tofu, click here.
Ally Muszynski is a third year environmental and urban studies and public policy at UChicago and a member of SARC. When she is not in class, she enjoys cooking delicious food and learning more about the sustainability of the foods she uses.