Category Archives: Culinary Happenings

Cool culinary happenings in Chicago

soy good P1020206

Terroir of Tofu

Known for its bland taste, the last thing I’d ever associate with tofu would be an aroma. Yet, that’s exactly what drew Jenny Yang into the storefront location of Phoenix Bean Tofu for the first time, a company she later bought and grew. You see, Jenny grew up in Taiwan, a place where tofu was common at all meals, especially at breakfast in the form of a tofu shake. Each morning, as she took her morning stroll, the aroma of tofu hung in the air, drifting from morning stalls in the manner that coffee does in America’s streets.

One morning, a few years back, the distinct taste memory of fresh tofu popped into her head as she pushed her stroller through a Chicago neighborhood, having long ago emigrated. Following her nose, she landed in the nondescript storefront of Phoenix Tofu, a place where she found a team of workers clustered behind a thick plastic curtain, hard at work producing the fresh tofu that was to be delivered to surrounding restaurants that day.

What led Jenny to buy the business, ultimately, was her belief in the craft of fresh tofu. Usually only available in restaurants, Jenny believes people will come to want the fresh stuff as soon as they taste the difference. What makes Phoenix tofu different from supermarket varieties is not just the flavor, but also the lack of preservatives and the quality of the beans, which are locally sourced and non-GMO.

I asked Jenny, who I met the Good Food festival in Chicago, why the previous owners of Phoenix tofu didn’t use preservatives. “They don’t even know what preservatives are,” she laughed. “They just deliver it fresh to the restaurants each day, which order more of it when they run out.” To that point, Jenny is hesitant to sell tofu to any retail grocer not able to sell its products fresh. She dreams of tofu bars in the not too distant future, akin to today’s mozzarella bars, where customers order fresh tofu in different formats and flavors.

In an effort to take tofu mainstream, Jenny’s team sets up shop at local farmers markets and food festivals, preaching the gospel of tofu through sampling and educational demos. Curious onlookers happily chow on the assortment of toothpick-spea

Edible Alchemy Underground Dinner

A True Underground Dinner Experience

Underground dinners have always held a certain allure – that sense of mystery and exclusiveness that makes you feel lucky to get “in.” Unfortunately, most of the ones I’ve attended have not lived up the hype. I remember going to one a few years ago that sounded great on paper, but failed to deliver the great food, sense of community and just plain fun that I had imagined.

But I held out hope that the one I was planning to attend last weekend would fare better. I’d never heard of it before in the popular press, having  only found out about it after subscribing to the Edible Alchemy newsletter at the Good Food Festival in Chicago. It promised an “immersive vegetarian dinner experience focused on using local ingredients in traditional ways,” pretty much summing up my own philosophy of food. This particular monthly community gathering centered on the Persian New Year, or Nowruz. I was in.

The Altar of NowruzLocated in Pilsen, we arrived at a non-descript residential street and knew we’d found the right place when we spotted a few other curious-looking people hovering outside the building. We stepped inside and at once were immersed, as promised, in a Mid-Eastern feast. Friendly servers, chefs and hosts dressed in Mid-eastern garb swirled around us as we took seats at one of many long tables.  The menu explained the unusual décor we found at our tables, featuring the seven elements of the traditional table setting for the celebration, including fishbowls of live goldfish.

Edible Alchemy Mixologist
Pomegranate Rosewater Cocktail

The evening’s mixologist was hard at work with the first of the optional beverage pairings for the night, a vodka, pomegranate and rose water cocktail, garnished with drunken grapes. Mid-eastern music echoed through the lofted space, and we got to know our neighbors, friendly in the community way we’d always imagined.

Persian Appetizer Plate
Persian Appetizer Plate

Each course was introduced by the evening’s menu consultant, a Persian woman who shared the backstory on her mother’s recipes and the Nowruz traditions. The first course, a medley of salads and cold dishes, was akin to what you’d imagine Mid-Eastern food to be, but with interesting variations, such as the Koo Koo Sabzi, an insanely green quiche heavier on herbs and greens than eggs.

Vegan Kebab and Sweet Saffron Rice
Sweet Saffron Rice

One of the highlights of the evening was the Sweet Saffron rice, a sweet, chewy pilaf, highly aromatic from a long bath in Iranian-smuggled saffron, garnished with large bright strips of pickled carrots. It was served with a vegan kebab.

Date Nut Cake with Saffron Ice Cream
Date Nut Cake with Saffron Ice Cream

Finally, the night had to end, but not without a grand finale – dessert was the surprise hit of the evening. Described merely as “date nut cake + homemade saffron ice cream” it was way better than described.  More  fudge than cake, this utter slab of decadence was thick with dates and richly coated in pistachios. Cooling notes from the accompanying saffron ice cream  as dense as wet sand was the perfect complement.

At last, a true underground experience. But, shh! Don’t tell anyone. We’ll be back.