A few kilometers northeast of Balikpapan’s bustling Kebun Sayur market, in a tiny village called Kampung Somber, an old-school tofu factory churns out kilograms of freshly made tofu every day of the week.
From outside, this place may not look like much. But once you step through those corrugated metal and wood frame doors, a whole new world of noise and smell and color steams over you.
Because this place is a tofu factory (“tahu” in Bahasa Indonesian), and the incredibly hard working employee who works here, Nadimon, bustles from one vat to the next for hours on end, making a minimum of 50 kilograms (that’s 121 pounds!) of tofu from scratch every day. Seven days a week. From six in the morning to around six at night!
Nadimon was kind enough to walk me through the process, from start to finish. Here’s how it works:
A step-by-step guide on how to make fresh tofu at a tofu factory, Balikpapan-style!
Step One: Start with raw soy beans
Nadimon starts with rinsed, raw soy beans. I was surprised to discover that these beans are actually imported from the USA!
Step Two: Create a paste
Raw soy beans are poured into a giant mixer. The ground beans are mixed with water (water is supplied from the blue tank); just enough to create a thick, soy paste.
Step Three: Boil soy paste and water
Nadimon then pours the soy paste into a vat, adds water and boils the mixture for about twenty minutes. As you can see, even with the “open ventilation plan” it gets steamy in this tofu factory!
Step Four: Pour the boiled soy mixture into sieve
Drain the boiled mixture into a container with a cheese-cloth (or similar) membrane covering the container’s surface. (The top of the container contains wide, metal grating to support the cloth and to keep it from collapsing into the bowl.)
Step Five: Sieve the pulp from the soy milk
Allow the cheese cloth to drain. When finished, the soy pulp (known widely as “Okara“) remains on top. The liquid that has filtered through the cloth is actually fresh soy milk!
Step Six: Discard pulp
Gather the soy pulp and discard, leaving the steaming, strained soy milk underneath.
Step Seven: Ladle in the curdling liquid
Nadimon now lifts the metal grating from the container of steaming soy milk, and stirs in several ladles of room temperature vinegar-water. This coagulates the milk, separating the soy curds from the whey — just like making cheese! It also imparts a subtle sour flavor to the tofu.
Step Eight: Drain the curds from the whey
This next step is quite clever. Nadimon places a plastic-mesh laundry basket into the curdled soy milk, thus sifting the whey from the curds, and pumps out the watery whey with a hose.
Step Nine: Ladle curds onto wooden molds
Nadimon then ladles the curds (and what is left of the whey) into large, perforated wooden molds lined with cheese cloth. The watery whey seeps through the cloth, leaving the curds behind. As you can see, the bottom of the molds are designed with a grid pattern to shape the tofu. Also, the sides of the box molds are actually separate from the bottom, thus making it easier to lift the tofu out later in the process.
Step Ten: Wrap and brace wooden molds
Once the molds are filled nearly to the top, Nadimon wraps the drained curds with the cheese cloth, then puts a wooden brace on top. The brace (which looks a bit like a miniature fence) spans from one side of the wooden mold to the next.
Step Eleven: Press tofu molds
Concrete blocks are then placed on top of the wooden brace to add pressure and squeeze out any remaining liquid from the soy curds. Nadimon ends up placing two such blocks on each frame, the total weighing about twenty-five kilograms.
Step Twelve: Remove weights and braces
After about twenty minutes, the weights, wooden braces and box-molds are removed, revealing a solid pallet of freshly pressed tofu. You can see the removed box-molds above Nadimon’s head, where he has hung them on the wall.
Step Thirteen: Flip the wooden pallet containing pressed tofu
Nadimon places a wooden lid on top of the exposed tofu, and flips the pallet upside down. The wooden lid contains the same square grid pattern as the bottom of the mold, thus shaping the tofu on both sides.
Step Thirteen: Remove pallet tops
The pallet tops are now removed, revealing a block of shaped tofu consisting of 100 squares (10 by 10).
Step Fourteen: Remove cheesecloth
The cheesecloth is carefully removed from the tofu before lifting the pallet to the cutting table.
Step Fifteen: Cut tofu into blocks
Nadiman then cuts each shaped square so that each pallet contains 100 blocks of individual tofu.
Step 16: Soak cut tofu in fresh water
Finally, he lifts each tofu square from the pallet and places it in a bucket of water where it will soak overnight at the tofu factory before being shipped out to be sold.
And that, ladies and gents, is how it’s done at an Indonesian tofu factory.
While I was there, Nadimon made two batches of tofu. That’s eight pallets … or 800 squares of tahu! All of that, in about forty minutes. Incredible! And to Nadimon, thank you for your kindness, patience and willingness to share the process of how to make tofu.
So next time you’re tucking in to a yummy block of fried tahu for lunch, think of Nadimon. Who knows? He might have even made it!