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Making Soy Milk, the Old-Fashioned Way

Winter has taken grip outside, but inside the cottage spinning the wooden handle of the old stone grinding wheel, I’m starting to build up quite a sweat. A trickle of creamy soy milk is dripping from the heavy grinding stone into the basin below, drop by drop, and it already smells good.

The mysteries of soy milk (dòujiăng 豆浆) and how it is created from soy beans have puzzled me for some time, although never for long enough to actually do some reading or research about it (shame on me). Doubtless for any of this blog’s Chinese readers it will be no mystery whatever, but I didn’t grow up drinking sweetened or savoury soy milk for breakfast everyday and I didn’t even know that making soy milk is the first step in making tofu (more shame on me!). When the opportunity came to actually make soy milk myself this weekend I jumped at the chance to see how it was done and learn more, and I could hardly have asked for a better teacher.

This is Ah Ping, who lives in the loveliest little white-washed stone cottage on the shores of Yangcheng Lake, where she entertains guests of the nearby hotel by showing them how to make soy milk the traditional way, using organic dried soybeans grown on the hotel’s own impressively large organic farm. Ah Ping is also the apiarist who takes care of the nearby beehives, producing a delicious dark local honey, and a great farm-style cook.
Yangcheng Lake is home to the world’s best hairy crab thanks to its clean, deep waters, and because of the fairly strict (for China) management of the lake’s valuable natural resources it has become an area of increasing interest to Chinese foodies for its nearby organic farms and food producers. More and more Chinese people are developing an interest in where food comes from and how it is grown, an interest in no small part fuelled by frequent food scandals and disasters. 
I walk into Ah Ping’s neat three-roomed cottage. The sun is streaming through the open lattice windows onto a small settle by the window where the heavy stone grinder sits. It has a circular top with a stout wooden handle to one side, and a small hole for placing the soy beans and water. This top stone rotates over the lower grinding stone as you turn the handle, and the resulting soy milk trickles between the two stones into a circular stone trough, and over the lip of the trough into a basin placed below it. It must weigh a tonne and I ask Ah Ping whether anyone still keeps such a heavy piece of equipment in their home. ‘Nearly everyone who makes their own soy milk now uses a small electric machine’ she tells me, ‘but in the countryside some people still use these grinding stones.’
Ah Ping brings me two bowls of soybeans, before and after soaking. Before soaking the soybeans are small, hard and yellow, but after an overnight soaking in water they have quadrupled in size and softened.
She places a spoonful of soy beans into the hole on top of the grinder, using the blunt end of a chopstick to push them down and begins to grind, adding a little water now and then when the liquid soy milk looks too thick. When the hole is empty she adds another spoonful of beans and some more water. The thick soy milk oozes between the two grinding stones and runs down into the trough, and after ten minutes of grinding we have a litre of cream-coloured milk. As for the optimal grinding speed? ‘Not too fast, not too slow’ she says, with a smile.

After grinding, the creamy milk is poured through a muslin cloth into a clean wok, and the muslin twisted and squeezed to get every last bit of the milk. The remaining bean grindings can be used to cook other dishes including a type of cake, Ah Ping tells me. Once strained, the milk is heated to simmer point for a few minutes, and the inedible froth skimmed from the surface and discarded. In this process the unhelpful protease inhibitor enzymes in the soy milk are inactivated and removed.
The result? Like milk of any kind it tastes better and stronger when it’s fresh. Served hot, plain or sweetened, it has a creamy texture and a light nutty taste with grassy overtones. I’ve taken the glass outside to sit in the winter sunshine, warming my hands as I sip. Ah Ping pokes her head out of the window. ‘Tastes different to the soy mik in Shanghai, doesn’t it?’ she asks. ‘You have to make it fresh to get the best taste.’ I agree with her, and decide I’m going to invest in a soy milk machine in the next week or two, because I have a grandiose plan to try making my own tofu. Now that would be an achievement.
Yangcheng Lake can be reached by taking the fast train from Hongqiao Station, Shanghai to Kunshan South Station (17 minutes at 300km/h, trains run several times every hour). Ah Ping’s house is part of the organic farm owned and run by the Fairmont Hotel, Yangcheng Lake. You can visit for a lesson in soy milk making (50 yuan, including 500ml of organic soy milk) or to taste and buy honey. By arrangement, Ah Ping also hosts cooking classes and lunches using the farm’s own organic vegetables. 
  • Adeline

    I am constantly amazed by your commitment in your exploration of Chinese food and culture. I really do take for granted the humble soybean. Since I'm all for the cross-pollination of ideas, after your maiden attempt at dou jiang (local terminology is dou hua), if I could inspire (if you will) to up the ante:
    I've tried it and as the adage goes, the proof is truly in the pudding! Oh, if only you were living in the next state, I'd have some Fed-exed across!

  • christa @ mental foodie

    Ditto what Adeline said about "I am constantly amazed by your commitment in your exploration of Chinese food and culture." 🙂 I was used to sweet soy milk, so when I first tried the carton soy milk from Melbourne's supermarket, I had no idea soy milk could taste so different in the western world! I love tofu, and also like Japanese tofu (if you don't know what they are, just google "Japanese egg tofu" which is usually sold in a round tube and they are very smooth. I wonder how difficult it is to make it- I guess I never thought about making my own, Chinese or Japanese style!

  • Fiona

    Adeline thanks for your lovely and very encouraging words! I just go where the food is……

    Read with interest your link – I had tried to make a soy panna cotta once (total failure) but now realise I was doing it all wrong technique wise, I needed to start with soy milk rather than tofu.

    Interesting you also noticed a big difference Christa in the soy flavours – different beans, but also after reading a different process for making it in order to render it less 'beany' and more 'milky'. It has to do with what stage and how you heat – either soybeans first, then cold filter, or cold-grind and filter like here, then heat.

  • shaz

    Wow! I feel like I say that a lot whenever I visit your blog Fiona, but ditto what the others said. You are truly dedicated in bringing these interesting stories to us. I've never seen soy milk ground this way before even though I grew up drinking it.

    I want to get a grinder too, I've seen on another blog an electric grinder that separates the discarded beans from the liquid for you.

    Good luck on the tofu.

  • Fiona

    Thanks Shaz – you guys brighten my day! I want me a big heavy stone grinder too – I'm sure I saw one in an antique warehouse once and thought it was for grain. Off to buy my electric soymilk machine today.

  • Anonymous

    Do you feel that Syria spying on dissidents?

  • Fiona

    Um… the Arab Spring interested in soy milk?