Expedition in China II: Finding a Stone Mill

Family Yang  in Heping Village

Date: April 18-22, 2018                                  Place: Xiba, Leshan, Sichuan, China
Documentation: Huadou & ALTER THE AIR          Article: Sibo Peng, Mengya Huang 
Revision: Christopher Harkins

When we first planned Huadou two years ago, we began with an expedition to the famous tofu town, Xiba, in Sichuan, China. Together with Alter the Air design studio, we began to document the traditional methods of tofu-making, as well as the vivid marketplace lifestyle of the markets and the local families that inhabit them.

Only ten years ago, making fresh tofu using a large stone mill was still a typical method for locals to treat guests to delicious food in Xiba Town. Today, however, given the process of industrialisation, this tradition is slowly disappearing. It isn’t uncommon to see stone mills abandoned on street corners, a sign of the changing times we find ourselves in. As a result, most of the tofu made in restaurants and bazaars of Xiba Town is produced using large machinery, therefore losing much of the flavour Xiba tofu is renowned for. 

As part of our research, in order to find traditional stone-mill produced tofu, we had to travel further into the mountain area, roughly six kilometers west of Xiba Town. On our journey, we noticed that despite its mountainous terrain, most of the land around the houses had been reclaimed and planted with various crops. Once we travelled off the main road, along a winding path and through a bamboo forest, we finally arrived at the house of Yang Wenyong’s family home in Heping Village. Here, we discovered a typical residential house of southern Sichuan, mostly constructed from wood. To the left-hand side of the gate, we found what we were searching for, a large stone mill with a diameter of nearly one meter. 

Although our visit was brief, our host enthusiastically demonstrated the entire process of making fresh tofu in the traditional fashion. Soaked soybeans and clear spring water are added little by little as the stone mill turns, carefully producing concentrated soy milk. In order to properly push and pull the stone mill with the best results, the cooperation of two people is required. When compared to the mechanical method, which crushes the soybeans at a much higher temperature and sacrifices much of the flavour, the traditional stone mill slowly and evenly releases the aroma of the beans and produces a better quality product. 

Once the stone mill has grinded the soy, we then cook the mixture at a high heat until it boils, then reduce it back to a simmer. After we filter the mixture with a gauze towel, the soymilk is mixed evenly with a salt coagulant. Shortly after, a large wok of white, tender and aromatic tofu is prepared. 

Although this bowl of stone-milled silk tofu may appear simple, it actually requires great effort to perfect. And yet, the process itself is cathartic. By pushing and pulling the stone mill, one finds themselves in a somewhat meditative-like movement, which relaxes both the body and mind and creates an appreciation for the entire process.