Chow Down Grill is a restaurant that I don’t go to as often as I would like but every time I go I have a great experience. I love the food and the enthusiasm that chefs Joshua Marcus and Jason Suttmiller show for everything they do, whether it’s making a sauce or hosting an underground dinner.
It was at an underground dinner – January’s Cobaya dinner, which you can read about in detail at Food for Thought – that I heard Josh talk about Chow Down’s homemade soy sauce. My curiosity was piqued and a few weeks ago I spent some time at the restaurant learning about the process. Josh and Jason also showed me how they make their tofu. I also learned that they are growing vegetables, including ghost chilies, two kinds of habaneros and nine varieties of heirloom tomatoes, for the restaurant.
The soy sauce was Jason’s idea. Since they were making all other sauces in house, why not?
“Even the old Chinese lady at the shop on 163rd [Street] thinks I’m nuts,” he says. “She said no one makes their own soy sauce anymore.”
It wasn’t as easy as pulling off a recipe from the Internet. In fact, Jason found little information out there on how soy sauce is made so it took about three weeks of online research and visits to the public library for him to piece together enough information to get started. On my visit, the third batch of soy sauce was fermenting.
The process starts by soaking soybeans to rehydrate them. The beans are then boiled until they turn into a mush. After the beans cool, Jason adds flour and yeast.
“Traditionally what they did is they took cracked wheat from the field and they mixed with the soy beans and that has natural yeast on it,” he said. “The flour that you get today has very little yeast in it because of the way they process it so I add yeast to it just to kinda kick-start the whole process. It’s like adding yeast to beer.”
The bins with the soybeans, flour and yeast then go up in the rafters “because oddly enough, it has the right temperature, it has good air flow and the humidity is about 60 percent.” Mold starts to grow and after about two weeks the paste that forms is placed in a salt solution. That’s where the process ends for six months save for a stir every three or four weeks.
After the six months, the liquid is filtered, pasteurized and placed into small oak barrels from where it’s poured into the sauce bottles that sit on the tables and counter at Chow Down. The result is not the dark-colored soy sauce that you buy at the supermarket. This sauce is a light brown hue.
Jason’s goal is to eventually have his soy sauce replace all commercial soy sauce used by the restaurant and its South Beach sister, which is currently under construction. He has been keeping a log of the quantities of beans, flour and salt used, the times, temperatures and outcomes to track his progress.
“It’s gotten progressively to the point where we’re super proud of what we’re doing,” said Josh. “Instead of being like let’s see if we can make it, it’s let’s see how great we can make it.”
Making tofu is more straightforward (and easier to capture in photos) but it still took a little experimenting for Josh and Jason to get it right.
Tofu is made by coagulating soy milk and then pressing the curds into blocks. To get started, industrial-grade soy milk is mixed with calcium sulfate. At first, Josh and Jason were using over-the-counter magnesium chloride as a coagulant but because they needed so much of it, the tofu was coming out bitter.
This mixture sits on the stove for about 20 minutes and then the curds are poured into a sheet pan lined with a damp apron. The resulting tofu is firm but creamy. Josh uses the whey (the liquid that remains after the milk curdles) to make vegan soups and sauces in the restaurant.
It’s all, as Jason says, about having control over the product.
Chow Down Grill
9517 Harding Avenue, Surfside