• A small team makes all the tofu by hand at Như Quỳnh. (Yvonne Lam)Source: Yvonne Lam
The all-natural tofu is made by hand by a five-person team, and has a cult following in Sydney’s Vietnamese community.
Yvonne C Lam

5 Sep 2018 - 3:58 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2018 - 4:38 PM

When you’re one of Sydney’s most in-demand tofu factories, a Buddhist lunar calendar is a helpful planning tool. As well as predicting the waning and waxing of the moon’s cycle, it’s also a barometer for when wholesale orders for your specialty tofu will spike.

Thai Nguyen, general manager of Như Quỳnh tofu factory in Yagoona, NSW, follows the calendar closely. Strict Vietnamese Buddhists follow a vegetarian diet year-round, while other followers observe ăn chay kỳ. “[These] are special vegetarian days that happen every two weeks, around the full moon and [new] moon. I follow the [moon] calendar ... because I need to know when it's going to be even more busy, [because] that's when orders will be coming in,” he says.

"Other larger commercial tofu brands last 30 days, because they have those preservatives. Mine only last a week [because it’s all natural]." 

The Như Quỳnh brand has a somewhat of a cult following in the Vietnamese community. The factory, set on a vehicle-heavy strip of the Hume Highway, specialises in đậu hủ chiên (Vietnamese-style fried tofu). It’s available at select Asian grocers in large blocks, triangles, or ‘chips’.

Their tofu is unusual – and high in demand – because everything is done by hand. Large tubs of non-GMO Queensland soybeans are softened in water, then ‘juiced’ into a soy milk. The ‘milk’ is boiled, cooled, and then coagulated – separated into curds and whey – through a process of salting and stirring. “The way we make tofu from soy milk is [similar] to making cheese from cow's milk,” says Nguyen.

The strained curds are placed into moulds, and pressed into shape with a pneumatic pressure clamp – the only mechanised part of the process. The set tofu is then hand-sliced, deep-fried and packaged to be sent off to grocery shops. On the odd occasion, Nguyen even drives the delivery van himself.

Removing todu from the moulds

Additionally, the Như Quỳnh tofu is free of chemical additives. Nguyen says many larger, Chinese-style tofu manufacturers tend to add calcium sulfate, magnesium sulfate or magnesium chloride to their mixture. “That's why other larger commercial tofu brands last 30 days, because they have those preservatives. Mine only last a week [because it’s all natural]. I recommend people consume the tofu on the day they buy it ... If they can buy it,” he says. 

"The way we make tofu from soy milk is [similar] to making cheese from cow's milk."

That’s because the tofu is so highly regarded, but is produced on a small scale. At most, there are five workers at a time on the factory floor. On the odd occasion, a bell rings, a signal for a staff member to hurry out to the front counter, where in-the-know customers buy direct from the factory. However, underneath the counter is a ready-made sign that reads: “Sold out, due to high demand”. Nguyen has even closed his trade books, and can’t accept any more wholesale accounts.

But there are no plans to expand. As the sole manager, Nguyen already clocks 80 hours a week working on the business; his wife, Tina Vu, is the company director. The couple have two young sons (with a third child on the way), and Nguyen is mindful about balancing his home and work commitments. “I don't want to just work, work, work. I'm more focused on having some free time with the kids,” he says.

Nguyen has even closed his trade books, and can’t accept any more wholesale accounts.

It was his future mother-in-law who introduced him to the tofu business in 2003. After graduating from his university studies, Nguyen worked in corporate finance, while also juggling shifts at a mobile phone shop, and as a process worker with Như Quỳnh factory. Vu’s mother, Nga Nguyen (Nguyen is her maiden name – she’s not blood-related to Thai), bought the business from its previous owner, and set about perfecting the tofu recipe, even travelling to Vietnam to learn about the intricacies of tofu from an experienced friend.

It’s easy to see why their tofu is so renowned. Thai Nguyen plucks a couple of tofu pieces from the cooling racks. They’re still warm, with an outside that’s gently wrinkled from the fryer, though free from any greasiness. The inside tofu is dense but silky, and mildly salty, gently sweet and nutty, and utterly delicious.

The tofu fame comes with a tofu nickname. About town, Nga Nguyen is known as “Nga from the Như Quỳnh factory". She believes the factory’s reputation stems from its strict quality control, even in the face of overwhelming demand. “No matter how busy we get, we try to keep the taste of our tofu consistent. We never change [our process, or] dilute our end product,” she says in Vietnamese.

And there’s another perk to working in the small tofu factory – soy is rich with vitamin E, and there’s a lot of fragrant soy steam rising from the factory’s boiling cauldrons. “A lot of our process workers [who] work for us do notice their skin looking nice after a few months,” she says.

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