Portraits from a Tofu Factory

I’d been riding across Java, the most populated island of Indonesia, for about a week now. I had survived the mad drivers of the Jakarta, skirted the northern coast along some beautiful roads, finally arriving in Semarang, in central Java. I parked my bike, locked my helmet to the frame, and found a cheap hotel. I was road weary, my feet tingled from the constant vibration of the motorcycle pegs. I quickly showered and walked downstairs into the street. It felt funny walking again, like when you first get off rollerskates and your brain still thinks it’s gliding along.

I walked down the street hunting for a coffee shop to relax. I turned left, then right. Nothing. Ahead, on the side of the road, a small table had been set up selling what appeared to popcorn. I walked closer, a small, elderly woman appearing from a doorway. Steam drifted from the doorway. She smiled broadly. “Tofu”, she said.

I never gave Tofu a second thought. In fact, the only time that I really gave it a thought at all was when I was pushing it to the side of the plate when eating Chinese food delivered from Big Lantern, my local Chinese take-out. I picked up the beans realizing they were dried and salted soybeans, the primary ingredient for making tofu. The woman motioned to her mouth, “try one”.

I ate the bean with a satisfying salty crunch. “Tofu?” I asked raising my hands hoping to make it a question. She pointed to the steamy doorway behind her. “Inside. You see,” she said taking my hand.

I walked inside the small factory. Despite a trail of steam snaking along the ceiling before it escaped out the door, the air was bone dry. Wicker baskets of soybeans sat upon shelves along the walls. From left to right, the soybeans changed color. First, the new beans, still green and moist, then as they dried, the colors changed to dark brown, yellow, and eventually a golden color. In the middle of the room, a man kneeled on the floor sifting dried beans, placing some on large pink plastic sheets, and others on another wide flat basket where he added salt, mixing them around, before dividing into bags like I had first seen on the street.

 

We ventured deeper, following the source of the stream. Vast vats of buddling soy and boiling water filled the next room. Men and women sifted the pulpy substance, sweat dripping down their faces. The work was hard, obviously, but they never failed to offer me a smile. That’s one thing you learn about Indonesia, the people are incredibly friendly and positive.

 
My impromptu tour guide pointed towards the vat, where some of the beans had reached the reached the desired consistency and the excess water was pressed out. I was enthralled. I had no idea Tofu could be so fascinating.
I munched on another handful of dried soybeans. Once the excess water is removed, The pulp is given a rinse with clean, hot water removing grime and impurities from the boiling process, before being left to dry until the pulp becomes the consistency of dough.
After sitting for about eight hours, the thickened pulp is sliced up into the familiar tofu squares and wrapped

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We concluded our mini tour. I purchased some of the finished tofu, knowing I would have no way of preparing it. My little jetboil stove only had one pot. Riding a motorbike forces you to consider what you carry. I thanked the woman and walked further down the street. I turned a corner, almost running into a Starbucks.
That’s the thing I love about travel. If I had found Starbucks as soon as I left my hotel I would have never experienced the daily life of the locals, and certainly would have never looked at Tofu the way I look at it now. I still don’t like it, but instead of dismissing it, I give it a second thought. It reminds me of the smiles, and the people of that tiny, sweaty factory in the middle of Indonesia.

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