After 27 years in the tofu business, Mark Amey knows the current interest in wellness is nothing new.

“When [Fresh Tofu] started in 1984, we thought the health food movement was taking off,” Amey said. “It wasn’t like it is today, but people were getting into it.”

Amey started working at Fresh Tofu soon after the company was founded, and in 2018 bought it from the previous owners. What began as a two-person operation supplying only restaurants is now housed in a production facility in Allentown, employing more than 20 people and turning out as much as 5,000 pounds of tofu a day. It’s sold in grocery stores, served in university dining halls, and distributed wholesale to restaurants across the region. Amey says selling to chefs, who have the highest expectations for the product, is one of his favorite elements of the business. Their support indicates to him that he’s making a high-quality product.

Judy Ni, the chef-owner of Baology, says Fresh Tofu is the only tofu she’ll buy.

“In Taiwan, people make their own tofu or buy it fresh from local markets,” Ni explains. “This is by far the best product that I’ve found, and it’s more comparable to what I find in Taiwan than anything else.”

Amey says their product is modeled after a Japanese-style medium-firm tofu, which is meant to be an all-purpose product. At every possible point, he says, they make choices that improve the taste and texture of the tofu. They source organic soybeans from small-scale farmers in upstate New York, the same farmers they’ve been buying from since the company started. The beans are soaked and ground, then spun to extract the liquid. The leftover slurry, or okara as it’s called in Japan, is discarded, in this case going to local dairy farmers who use it to feed their herds.

“We’ve always felt like it was important to close that organic loop, to reduce waste,” Amey says. Once the okara is removed, a natural coagulant called nigari is added. Amey sources the nigari from Japan, where it’s a by-product of removing salt from seawater. “It’s the purest form you can get,” Amey says. “It’s basically seawater, without the salt — chemically it’s magnesium chloride, but it has all the elements and nutrients from the seawater.”

Once nigari is added, the protein and oil from the soybeans clump together to form curds, leaving behind a watery whey, which is drained off. The curds are placed into forming trays and pressed to remove excess water. The tofu is then cut and packaged for sale.

“When you eat our tofu, it has a flavor to it, as opposed to being very watery or bland or gritty,” Amey says. “I get a lot of compliments from people who either lived in Japan or grew up there, who say that our tofu is very close to what they ate there.”

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Amey, says the two main differentiating factors between their product and the widely available industrial tofu most Americans have had is the quality of the soybeans, and the coagulant that they use — Amey says he can tell when tofus are made with cheaper industrial coagulants.

For David Milstein, who launched Philly Tempeh in 2019, the difference in quality for his products stems from the tempehhe makes in small batches that are quickly sold directly to his customers. The result is a fresher, more delicious product that has more health benefits.

While tofu has origins all over East Asia, tempeh (also spelled “tempe”) originates from Indonesia. It’s a chunkier product, with whole pieces of its base ingredient (typically soybeans) held together with a fermented starter. It’s often served fried or baked, then glazed with flavorful sauces. Though soybeans are the most common base ingredient, Milstein says he has enjoyed experimenting with other legumes, which have allowed him to serve folks with soy allergies. As part of a desire to eat healthier, Milstein began making tempeh at home in 2018, after he realized to his great surprise that it was pretty straightforward. His hobby eventually grew into a business, which is currently on hiatus, though he plans to return to production soon.

Milstein’s tempeh-making process begins with whatever ingredient he’s using, like peanuts, chickpeas, and black beans, in addition to the classic soybean. They slowly simmer until they’re tender, then cooled and spread out to let their surfaces dry. The beans are then mixed with a starter, a live culture of rhizopus oligosporus, a mold that initiates fermentation. The mold digests the beans and produces white spores, which, when compressed, hold together the beans and form a cake, which is tempeh.

“The hard part of tempeh isn’t making tempeh, it’s making a ton of it, like having fresh bread at home,” Milstein says. “The process to get something so fresh and sensitive like tempeh out to the masses — the pasteurization, and vacuum sealing, and making sure it can withstand all of the different conditions — there’s something that’s lost at each step. So getting your hands on fresh, local tempeh is going to be a different experience.”

Milstein says that although he serves plenty of vegetarian and vegan customers, his hope is to highlight how delicious tempeh is, no matter what type of diet you follow.

“The whole idea that you have to be vegan to eat vegan food or be enthusiastic about vegan food, that’s ridiculous,” he says. “I’m not a vegan and I love tempeh — that’s a big part of why I started this business. If you’ve had grocery store tempeh and you didn’t like it, trying the fresh stuff is going to be a very different experience.”

Ni, who estimates that as much as 15% of the population of Taiwan are Buddhist vegan, says the idea of these diets as niche is an American idea.

“The European-centric way of cooking teaches us that flavor comes from fat,” Ni says. “That’s just not really the way that Taiwanese people look at it — there it’s more about texture and mouthfeel. A blend of those two ways of thinking is really a wonderful way to cook and eat.”

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One of the biggest changes Amey says he’s noticed since the 1980s is that people are far more likely to eat tofu in a restaurant these days, which helps them see the possibilities of how they might cook it at home.

“If you try something in a restaurant that you really like, you might think ‘Oh, I can make this at home,’ and that’s great for us,” he says.

These days, Amey still eats tofu all the time. He crumbles it onto salads, or bakes it and top it with a sauce (he’s particularly fond of barbecue sauce). At Baology, Ni’s most popular dish that features Amey’s product is the sweet and sour tofu, a dish of fried tofu chunks topped with the classic sauce, which is simple to recreate at home. Milstein eats tempeh at home regularly as well, adding it to stir fries or salads for extra texture and flavor.

“The best thing about tofu is that it can pick up whatever flavors you want,” Amey said. “The possibilities are truly endless.”

Fresh Tofu is available at regional Whole Foods stores, Weavers Way Co-Op, and at select Di Bruno Bros. retailers. Follow Philly Tempeh on Instagram for up-to-date information.