The Oberlin Stories Project

On OSCA tofu making

Weelic Chong ’15

“I learned what tofu meant to me: steeped in tradition and innovation, tofu is where the new and old come full circle, a circle spanning generations, a circle catalyzed in Harkness’ kitchen.”

Wearing an apron, Weelic holds up a bottle of siracha and a whisk.

I grew up with tofu just as my mom did, like her mom before her. Since I was young enough to walk, I remembered her buying tofu from the market every morning. Rice and tofu are staples in our family of seven, never mind that we had moved to a big city from a small village, where my grandma used to make and sell tofu for a living (I was born in Malaysia and moved to neighboring Singapore; in that part of the world, free from agricultural lobbies, tofu is cheaper than any meat — as it should be). I heard from my mom about making tofu in the old days, from the turning of the grinding wheel to crush the soy, to cooking the slurry in woodfire in the kitchen, all before first light. This was before the advent of large tofu factories and air-conditioned supermarkets rendered the artisan tofu shop nothing more than an old wives’ tale.

As I grew up, I forgot these tales, throwing myself headlong into the pursuit of technology and futuristic dreams. My obsession with brain-machine interfaces brought me into the search of a college that could offer me a solid foundation in the neurosciences. That, coupled with the pressures from living in a city-state with the highest population density in the world, pushed me afar to explore the seasons in a small town. That is how I came to Oberlin.

It was Oberlin that rekindled that old wives’ tale and led me to follow my grandma’s footsteps and be a tofu maker. As a first-year in the Keep Cottage co-op, I participated in discussions and ran successfully for tofu maker. All tofu makers from the different co-ops meet in Harkness kitchen on Sundays, which makes it vibrant and special. There, I crushed beans, mixed the slurry, and made tofu and friends with fellow makers, all with different stories. An artist who drew comic inspiration from the kitchen, a science major learning biochemistry while waiting for the soy to curdle, a boy who grew up on a farm, a girl with dreams to ride the world in a school bus (and eventually did). We made fast friends. The work could be tough; I believe tofu makers are the few among OSCAns who can boast (rightly) that they have done crew way past midnight on a Sunday night.

After a half a semester, I decided to run for tofu coordinator, hoping to train a solid team of tofu-makers. I was elated when I received the offer. As a coordinator, I have brought more than e-mails. Experiments with silken tofu production, innovations in temperature control and food safety, and accurate mass measurements all followed suit, and some of these were eventually institutionalized in Oberlin Student Co-operative Association (OSCA) tofu making.

All these changes started during a long distance phone call, when Mom asked me how I made tofu “in the west.” Mom remembered details about how Grandma made tofu, and something was quite different about the way she made it. Combined with careful readings of food science, I orchestrated an overhaul of the process, which demanded that we boil the crushed slurry before we filter it. The result was a better taste, faster heating, and more effective cleanup. It was then that I learned what tofu meant to me: steeped in tradition and innovation, tofu is where the new and old come full circle, a circle spanning generations, a circle catalyzed in Harkness’ kitchen. As I proudly passed on my craft to my best disciple, Althea (via a cooperative election, of course), I know Oberlin will continue to bring tofu to a new batch of students, each with their own stories and accomplishments.

People have asked me when OSCA can really make all its own tofu. Like it or not, a bunch of ragtag students with no significant training in tofu can never make high quality tofu in massive quantities. (I am not challenging future generations to do it; I am simply stating this as a fact.) This is why we still buy ready-made tofu, and why silken tofu never took off. I have come to realize that trying to make huge batches of tofu to feed OSCA is like making yarn from fibers that came from a hand-pressed cotton gin--essential before the Industrial Revolution, but now an exercise in futility.

So, why not take a look at this from a different angle? The knowledge we glean as we make tofu is more important than what eventually appears on our plate. Oberlin’s motto is “Learning and Labor,” not “labor and product.” In the same way, the things I will learn my four years here should trump my degree scroll in every aspect, and I believe my fellows feel the same way.