Looking out from his stall at Farm Gate Market, James Phelps noticed a lady hovering around. Tentatively, she approached him. “Did you make this tofu?” she asked. Phelps gave her a slither from the soft, white block resting in his palm. “Fantastic,” she said. “This tastes the same as it does in Japan.”
“This has happened probably five times in the last six weeks,” Phelps says. After trying his tofu, local and international foodies alike are often surprised that he is the man behind the beans. “It’s because the way I do it is 100 per cent traditional,” he says. But it’s taken him many hours in the kitchen, and a lot of dedication to the soybean to perfect his craft.
Phelps grew up in a meat-and-three-veg family on an isolated property in North West New South Wales. It didn’t take him long to discover he was lactose intolerant. So he made the switch from cow’s milk to bean milk at a young age.
Phelps, along with his partner Loz, founded Soy‘oy‘oy this year. Based in Kettering, Phelps makes small-batch tofu and soymilk along with other essentials crafted from the versatile soybean.
In a way, Phelps says, making soy products is almost as demanding as running a farm. He spends hours a day, seven days a week, preparing, cooking, and cleaning. It’s an “agonisingly slow, yet meditative” process.
The process to transform a soybean into a block of tofu or tempeh, a bottle of milk, or a bag of soy coffee is also demanding, and needs time, patience and passion, says Phelps. “There is so much research and development involved in getting quality and consistent products,” he explains.
“It takes time to really get to know your products, because often you want to know everything now, and know it all. But you can’t do that. You can’t get good old friends, and it’s the same theory with the beans. You need to take your time with it.”
But it’s paying off. “You have to have that focus to be able to absorb what you observe.” Phelps says he’s become so attuned to the process that he now forgoes his measuring cups and timers. “I can look at a really hot pot of soy milk, and I can say ‘That’s 70 degrees’, or ‘90 degrees’, just by the way it bubbles and how the soy looks.”
He’s recently acquired an “ancient” soybean grinder from a defunct Chinese restaurant in Launceston to help him keep up with the increasing demand of his products. Along with his regular Sunday slot at Farm Gate Market, Phelps supplies tofu to a few Asian restaurants in Hobart, particularly venues of Japanese cuisine.
As much as his tofu and products have been accepted and adopted by soy connoisseurs, he’s also reeling in a few locals who’ve been reluctant to give soy a chance.
“I had a lady told me last week that she’d never had tofu, because her husband thought it was rubbish food for ‘pot smoking hippies and Greenies’, and he knew he wouldn’t like it,” Phelps says.
“So his wife bought it, and I gave her the link to a few recipes to try. She came back with her husband the next week and told me they though it was ‘delicious’.
“So there you go. Just because you’ve never been in a boat before, why don’t you go for a row? It’s really satisfying, and that’s why I like doing markets.”
It’s been a dappled work path for Phelps, who’s worked in a number of seemingly unconnected industries. For many years, he found himself in the wine industry, mostly for Moet Hennessy. Then came event management in high-end venues. He dabbled in cheese-making a while back (to which he credits his intrigue and prowess with tofu-making). And he also threw in a “tragic” career working in a bank. Oh, and he worked in acoustics.
This lack of a clear career path used to give him a lot of angst. “Sometimes on reflection, I think: ‘Man, why don’t you just pick something and just do it?!’,” Phelps says.
“My eldest brother knew he was going to be an engineer when he was probably 15, when we were at boarding school out in the hills of New South Wales somewhere. And I was never, ever like that. It used to stress me a lot.
“I’ve done myriad things, but this is the happiest I’ve ever been, even though I’m working as hard as I’ve ever worked.”
Soy ‘Oy ‘Oy’s core range
S’Milk — Made with all-Australian soy beans (sourced from a Certified Organic mill in Queensland) and filtered rainwater. Phelps makes it the traditional way, and that means the milk retains its nutty flavour.
Image: Soy ‘Oy ‘Oy
“To a lot of Westerners, soy milk is something that usually has some shelf life, and some preservatives and sweeteners in it. They want something comparable to milk, but without the nutty flavours of soy. This means the milk is often exposed to a process involving intense heat to diminish the flavour.” Not S’Milk— it’s the real nutty deal.
Tofu — After turning the soybeans into milk (or S’Milk), Phelp’s gathers the curds, adds a coagulant and presses them into blocks.
Tempeh — Originating from Indonesia, tempeh is made from whole soybeans. “It’s a devil of a thing to perfect,” Phelps says. Tempeh is made by a fermenting process: “It needs around 30 hours at really disciplined temperatures and moisture levels.”
Image: Soy ‘Oy ‘Oy
S’Mash — “The Japanese call it okara.” Okara is the pulp leftover after the soybeans have been turned into soymilk and tofu. “In Japan, they use it for all sorts of things. It’s the base for lots of flavours in their food like soups and pastries. It’s a highly versatile, usable product.”
S’Coffee — Phelps says the process is very similar to roasting coffee beans, but there’s no caffeine in S’Coffee. It tastes similar, but soybean coffee has a nutty flavour and an intensely rich aroma. It’s also a lot more nourishing than regular coffee.