“Two bowls of dung3 faa1 for the ladies!”
It’s a busy day at Kung Wo Tofu Factory, where customers have been flocking to buy plain and fried bean curd since the early morning. Dung3 faa1 is a particularly popular treat. Short for dung3 dau6 fu6 faa1 (凍豆腐花; “cold tofu pudding”), it has been made for more than 2,000 years. When the shop manager shouts the order to her staff, a waitress uses a flat shovel-cross blade—specially made for the delicate pudding—to scoop up slices of soft white pudding from a knee-height wooden barrel. She slides them into two ceramic bowls and places them on the small foldable table under a rigorously rotating ceiling fan. The two women, pink-cheeked and recovering from the summer heat, slurp up the treat, dusting it with spoonfuls of brown sugar every few bites.
It’s a simple pleasure, but making this treat is no easy matter. In the steamy kitchen, three tofu makers dressed in loose, yellowed cotton vests and wet black wellies, sweat over the production of 600 to 700 bowls of tofu pudding for the day—over a thousand during the weekend—on top of the other soybean products the shop makes, including fish meat-stuffed tofu blocks, tofu mash-stuffed fried tofu cubes, plain tofu, fried tofu, pan-fried tofu and soy milk. All of this requires them to purchase 240 kilograms of soybeans per day, three kilos of which are used to create one barrel of tofu pudding.
One of those three tofu makers is shop owner So Song-lim – the oldest of the trio at 59 years old. As he methodically spreads thick layers of tofu mash onto cubes of fried tofu, he explains that the making of most of his soybean products, including tofu pudding, starts with soaking soybeans for three to four hours. “When the beans are softened, they are unloaded into the waist-tall stone grinder at the back of the kitchen,” he says. Then they are ground and blended with water to become soy milk. But that’s only the first step of the process. Two workers then pour the collected buckets of milk into a wooden barrel lined with muslin cloth to sieve out the plant fibres, before bringing the smooth liquid to a boil. “When compared to tofu, two additional litres of water are added to make tofu puddings,” he adds.
Soy milk is the base for a number of different products. “While tofu is made by placing a heavy wooden slab on top of the soybean milk to squeeze out much of the water to create a firm texture, the softer tofu pudding is made by pouring the piping hot soybean milk into calcined gypsum and letting it set,” explains So. Calcined gypsum is a natural mineral that contains calcium sulfate, which reacts with the protein in soybeans to coagulate the soy milk. According to traditional Chinese medicine, calcined gypsum nourishes the spleen, removes the toxins created by the body due to excess heat and relieves discomfort in the throat and mouth areas. “A lot of parents bring their children to have tofu puddings because tofu is rich in calcium, which helps build strong bones,” says So. “But most people are here because a cool bowl of dessert is a real treat in the heat.”
It’s no wonder that the healthy sweet treat has been popular in China for thousands of years. “The recipe hasn’t changed,” says So. The Compendium of Materia Medica, one of China’s most authoritative Chinese herbology volumes, written by Li Shizhen during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), traces the origin of tofu and tofu pudding to Liu An, the grandson of Liu Bang, the emperor who founded the Han dynasty in 202 BC. The prince set his capital in the Shou County in the north-central part of Anhui. But the book doesn’t note how or why he invented the sweet snack. One legend has it that Liu An was obsessed with looking for an elixir for immortality. He commissioned scholars and technical specialists to make the miracle medicine by simmering bittern and soybeans, commonly consumed in the region and noted for their health properties. Although the result wasn’t exactly the elixir Liu An looked for, he loved its delicate flavour and silky texture, and news of his discovery was quickly spread to the masses.
Each region of China has its own way of serving the pudding. In Fujian, tofu pudding is served both sweet, with sugar cane syrup, or savoury, with pickled radish, fried garlic, coriander, celery, dried shrimps and broth. In Taiwan, the pudding is embellished with fruit, taro balls or red beans, and the texture of the tofu is generally chewier than in Hong Kong.
It was Hong Kong’s sweet and smooth take on the pudding that left a lasting impact on So when he was a little boy visiting a soybean shop with his family. It was the same shop he owns today. Originally founded on Canton Road in 1893 by Lok Gong, a migrant from Qingyuan in northern Guangdong, the shop later relocated to Sham Shui Po when its building was torn down in 1958. Two years later, another branch was set up in Kowloon City, which is now owned by the Poon family. “I was a frequent customer at the Sham Shui Po shop,” So recalls. “I loved eating tofu puddings so much that when I heard Lok Gong was selling his business in the 90s, I decided to take it up.”
He hasn’t made many changes to the shop since then, though that isn’t true for his customers, who now “seem to be always in a hurry even when savouring tofu puddings,” he says. Otherwise, most of the original decor has been retained – even the dishware and utensils. There are pickle-green and white tiles, a ceiling fan, folding stools that make the most of a cramped space, a bundle of bags hanging from the ceiling at the front of the shop, where So and his staff can easily reach them during busy times. The shop’s white bowls are printed with the shop’s Chinese name in bright red characters, exactly the same as when So was a child.
These days, So is most proud of his shop’s stone grinder, the same one that has been grinding up soybeans for more than a century. Invented by Lu Ban, a revered Chinese structural engineer and carpenter in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC), the stone grinder allowed people to quickly refine rice, wheat and soybeans—the three staple grains of China—and turn them into everything from milk to noodles and cakes. So says he thinks his ancient stone grinder is much better at producing evenly refined bean paste and smooth milk than a modern machine. It is also versatile, and he can use it to grind up different types of beans; he says black beans can be used to make tofu pudding too, but soybeans are preferred because they are “much more flavourful.” And it’s that flavour that counts. So says the key to good tofu pudding is not only a smooth texture, it’s a rich soybean flavour.
It’s a flavour good enough that So doesn’t feel threatened by competition from more modern dessert shops, which offer ever-changing concoctions that appeal to a younger generation. “I think a lot of people will still favour the traditional flavour in the future,” he says. The proof is in the pudding: So’s tofu desserts are as popular as ever. “Our customers span across different age groups,” he says with a smile, adding that tourists even visit from Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. “I love tofu puddings the traditional way,” he says, gently opening another fried tofu cube in his palm to reveal an oyster-white centre. “And I would like to preserve what I love with the food I make.”
Kung Wo Tofu Factory is located at 118 Pei Ho Street in Sham Shui Po.