32,831 miles later

About eight months ago, we decided to put our regular lives on hold for a brief period and venture out to see the world again. We were heartsick and weary and in desperate need of a break from pretty much everything except each other. So we gave away our chickens, threw a few clothes in a backpack and locked up our house. And thus it happened that on a chilly January day, we left Colorado for Japan.

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Colorado

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Japan

In Japan, we visited monkeys in hot tubs and worked on farms. We ate ramen and tempura and so many other delicious things. We walked Tokyo and Kyoto and fell deeply, completely in love with a country so strange and different and welcoming and lovely that we cannot wait to return.

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New Zealand

From Japan, we flew to New Zealand. We rented a ragged campervan and drove the length and breadth of the country. We stumbled on an old sheep station and did some stunning walks and learned how macadamia nuts grow. And we discovered that we are perfectly content to live in a campervan…and we plan to do that again soon, too.

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Cambodia

After New Zealand, we were off to southeast Asia. We started in Cambodia with Angkor Wat and we also saw interesting things being made, like incense and rice noodles and tofu. Oh, and it was hot. (At least we thought so until we got to India, where we learned what heat really is.)

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Vietnam

We traveled overland to Vietnam, where we jumped on trains, dodged motorbikes, devoured street food and struggled to learn more about a conflicted country with a conflicted history.

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Thailand

Then it was time for a brief rest in Thailand; we went to more markets and bicycled through rice paddies and learned how to make handmade paper. We didn’t ride any elephants but we loved our time on the Banana Pancake Trail.

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India

No matter what, we weren’t ready for the heat and noise and crush and total sensory assault that is India. We’ve never traveled anywhere that we loved and hated in equal measure – sometimes in the exact same moment – and this complicated country has for certain gotten under our skin. We’ll be back here, too, and much better prepared this time.

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Spain

We flew from India to England, with a brief jaunt to gorgeous Madrid. This is one hell of a city…we miss drinking canas and eating jamón y queso at 2AM with hundreds of other people in the city’s beautiful plazas.

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England

We finished with some restorative time in the Midlands’ lush, rolling hills, where the innumerable shades of intense green defy belief. Hours of walking with only cows and sheep for company and then perhaps a brief stop at the local pub for a pint of Tiger. It’s not the worst way to spend a day.

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Colorado

And that brings us to now. We’ve been home for about three weeks and we’re struggling to adjust. This is not the country we left; it has been immensely challenging to reconcile the joy and freedom and lovely people of our travels with the rage and divisiveness and fear currently smothering all of us like a dense fog. But we’re back on our bikes, we’re volunteering on a goat farm and we’ve planted our garden. And this fall, we’ll be out on the road again to search for our farm property in earnest. Thanks for joining us on our travels over these past months and please stay tuned, friends, as our journey has just begun. We’re off to find Quiet Farm.

Scenes from the Banana Pancake Trail

We’ve never claimed to be the world’s most adventurous travelers, and our travel in southeast Asia definitely adhered to the classic Banana Pancake Trail. Nevertheless, we had a phenomenal time here and loved seeing countries that were new to both of us. We visited Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand in just under a month; below, some of our favorite images from this portion of the trip. We’re off to India!

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Illuminated lanterns in Hoi An’s Old Quarter.

Hoi An, near Da Nang on Vietnam’s central coast, was most certainly our favorite place in the country. We loved its antiquated feel and the charming Old Quarter, which is decorated with tens of thousands of brightly colored lanterns hung all over the shops and streets. Strolling here after sunset was such a pleasure.

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A fruit vendor in Hoi An.

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Early morning gardening in Vietnam.

In Hoi An, we participated in a sunrise bicycle tour that took us to the daily market, an organic farm and out to the rice paddies. Truthfully, most small village farms in developing countries are organic because labor there is cheap and chemicals are expensive. In the U.S., unfortunately, the opposite is true.

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The stunning interior of a village temple outside of Siem Reap.

This gorgeous temple was on a dusty road leading out of Siem Reap; from the outside, you’d never know that the interior was this incredible. Each fresco had a number painted in the corner; this indicated the amount of money raised by the village to pay for that particular painting.

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Vietnam’s favorite son is absolutely revered in this country.

Vietnam’s national hero, Ho Chi Minh, is celebrated all over the country but nowhere more so than in his namesake museum in Hanoi. The museum is one of the strangest and darkest – both in terms of actual light and the overall mood – places we’ve ever visited. It’s an unsettling combination of blatant propaganda and modern art installation, and worth seeing just for the weirdness.

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See how dark this museum is?

The placard on this exhibit in the Ho Chi Minh Museum read, in part, “The models in this hall give visitors information about how scientific and technical achievements have been made use of for peaceful and beneficial purposes. The models at the same time condemn those who have utilized these achievements for aggressive and destructive purposes.” What?

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A ferocious temple guardian in Chiang Mai.

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Look closely: the labeling on these boats in Hoi An lets everyone know you’re a tourist.

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Trainspotting might be a bit risky in Vietnam.

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Adding decoration to our handmade paper.

In Thailand, we took a papermaking class and created gorgeous papers with leaves and blossoms. It’s simple and rewarding and beautiful; we’re hoping to make our own to wrap our handmade cheeses in at Quiet Farm.

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Fishing boats on the river in Nha Trang.

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One of Chiang Mai’s many elaborately decorated temples.

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Da Nang’s famous (and very expensive) Dragon Bridge changes colors – and on weekend nights, it also sprays water and breathes fire!

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We found this lion dancer at an international food festival in Vietnam.

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The building boom in Nha Trang, a beach resort popular with Russian tourists.

Vietnam is in a mad rush to modernize, so hotels are constructed at a breakneck pace. This means that not only are there hammers and saws competing with motorbike horns at all hours, but that a lot of construction is left partially finished when workers move on to the next project.

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A “skinny house” in Hanoi.

Even more common than all the new construction is making do with what’s already there. The skinny house above has been tucked in; notice that the bamboo poles are actually structural and are keeping the two buildings from leaning in. Presumably something will be quickly built in that empty space. But there’s a fancy coffee shop! With gelato!

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The exterior of the traditional lanna house we stayed at outside Chiang Mai.

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A monk studying at a temple in Phnom Penh.

Monks in orange robes with shaved heads are a common sight throughout southeast Asia; it’s amusing to see them with earbuds and mobile phones, too. Even monks have to modernize.

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Is this for here or to go?

And we leave you with this photo, and dare you not to smile. While dogs are still eaten in southeast Asia, as the region grows in economic prosperity, its people want what they perceive as middle-class luxuries – and that includes house pets. So now it’s more common here to see dogs on a leash rather than on a grill.

Street food

After the markets, street food vendors are one of the most colorful sights in southeast Asia. From fresh fruits and vegetables to juices, meat and snacks, just about anything you fancy is available from a street stall. Although you might not know exactly what you’re eating, it’s worth watching just for the show.

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A lobster stall in Nha Trang setting up for business.

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Crocodile farming – for both meat and leather – is big business in central Vietnam; the industry is definitely not PETA-approved. This enticement is outside a restaurant in Nha Trang.

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These delicious little packets contain sticky rice stuffed with bananas, eaten as a snack or dessert.

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These lovely women are running a rotee stand. Rotees in Thailand fall somewhere between a crêpe and a pancake and are filled with sweet or savory ingredients.

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Carts are set up along just about every street.

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This woman is making Vietnam’s world-famous banh mi sandwich, sold for about 75 cents.

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These tiny bananas (about the length of a finger) are so much more flavorful than the standard Cavendish variety we get at home.

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Fancy some whiskey or red wine with your street food meal? You can have it.

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Perhaps you’d like a meatball skewer?

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Salted whole fish, ready to eat.

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Fried sweet potato, banana and other tasty treats.

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The “special meat” restaurant outside of Siem Reap. Sit, stay…good dog.

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Little sweet cakes, served hot.

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Skewers and more, ready for the grill.

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Baling sugarcane on the streets of Phnom Penh.

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The sugarcane is crushed through a press to produce delicious juice, which is flavored with fresh lime and sold in little baggies as a refreshing drink.

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Chefs demonstrate their stir-fry skills at Siem Reap’s night market.

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Honestly, I don’t know. But what colors!

 

To market, to market

For a chef and a photographer, traditional food markets are a wonderland. We visit markets whenever possible and do our best to capture the scents, sounds and tastes through our words and photos. These markets are often messy, fragrant, hot and noisy, to say the least, but they capture a place and its people the way few other tourist attractions do.

P.S. If you’re in the Denver area, I’m teaching an incredible cooking class on exploring ethnic markets in June at the Botanic Gardens. Learn more here!

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Chile paste, fresh chiles and ground turmeric.

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This little piggy went to market…

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The morning fish market in Hoi An.

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Fresh herbs, delivered by bicycle.

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Rice is the staple food for more than two-thirds of the world’s population, unsurprisingly, there is a lot available for purchase here.

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Know where your meat comes from.

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Siem Reap’s famous Night Market.

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Fresh pineapples are often sold peeled and cut for an easy to-go snack. 

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The “blackfoot chicken” is just one of the many poultry options available. Every conceivable type and size of bird is eaten here.

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Lots of unusual fruit varieties that I’ve never seen before!

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This is what chefs mean when they talk about “nose-to-tail” cooking.

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Most markets we’ve seen are conducted primarily on the ground.

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This is not the gluten-free section.

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Spices ready to blend into fiery curry pastes.

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Markets in southeast Asia aren’t just for food; Cambodia and Vietnam produce a great deal of the world’s “fast fashion,” typically in abysmal working conditions.

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Everything you need to garnish pho.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to cooking again when we get home!

 

Temples of boom

We thought of calling this post “Angkor what?,” but it’s a bit of a cheap shot. To sum things up rather simplistically, tourism in Cambodia exists primarily because of one place:

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The famous view of Angkor Wat at sunrise. 

Over two million tourists visit Cambodia each year, and the vast majority – like us – make Angkor Wat and the nearby temples central to their trip. Last year, the government-run organization that recently took over management of the temples (some sources claim this cultural treasure is actually owned by a businessman) announced a dramatic increase in the price of a one-day temple pass, from $20 to $37.

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You’ll want to arrive early, since you’ll be jostling for space with hundreds and hundreds of other tourists angling for the same sunrise shot.

Based on the throngs of people already at Angkor Wat at 5AM, it seems very few tourists have been put off by this price increase, despite concerns to the contrary. Although there are hundreds of temples in the immediate area, most tourists – like us – visit just a few and if we’re speaking honestly, it’s because this is a tourist attraction we’re supposed to see, rather than one we’re really interested in. It’s easy to get “templed out” here very quickly, especially in the blistering heat and pervasive dust of the dry season.

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One of Angkor Wat’s towers.

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Stone carving detail, Angkor Wat.

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Angkor Wat is the largest and best-preserved of the main temples, hence its overwhelming popularity.

As good tourists with unlimited access to travel guides and “places to go before you die” lists, travel too often becomes a series of boxes checked off, mostly based on others’ experiences (or glossy Instagram photos). Angkor Wat and its compatriots are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and regularly cited as one of the world’s most important historical monuments. The reality, however, is that unless you’re a devoted student of history, archeology and/or crumbling stone, you might actually find the endless piles of rubble and maddening crowds rather underwhelming.

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Temple entrance at Banteay Srei.

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Banteay Srei is carved from red sandstone, making it particularly unique amongst other temples in the area.

It’s also difficult for us, at least, to feel charitable towards a government who might have made somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million last year (based on a conservative 1.5 million visitors buying $20 temple passes) plus about $35 a head for visitor visas (again, conservatively about $70 million) but can’t seem to find the resources to organize clean drinking water or trash collection for its citizens. Where, exactly, are these millions going?

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Stone guards on duty at Banteay Srei.

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Carving detail, Banteay Srei. The temple’s name roughly translates as “citadel of the women;” one possible explanation is that men couldn’t have managed the intricacy of the carvings.

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Some of the thousands of tons of rubble at Beng Mealea.

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Beng Mealea’s grounds were only recently cleared of landmines and opened to the public.

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Crumbling walls at Beng Mealea.

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It’s a bit of a fixer-upper…

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Need any more convincing that nature rules absolutely?

Please don’t misunderstand: the temples are absolutely amazing. Most were built during the 10th or 11th centuries, and the Angkor area once comprised the world’s largest city. The history and craftsmanship carved into this stone is palpable. But it’s also hot, crowded and dirty, and it’s essential to acknowledge that when you travel, you will probably visit some “touristy” spots.

Look past the trash and the hordes, close your eyes and imagine what life might have been like in these temple complexes over a thousand years ago. Birth and death and war and famine and joy and love would all exist then, just as it does today. The main challenge we as tourists face now is how to appreciate significant places like this while still preserving them for future generations. Is there really such a thing as sustainable tourism?

How things are made

Hi! We’re in Cambodia! Adjusting to southeast Asia’s extreme temperatures (currently 96°F with 43% humidity) after New Zealand’s temperate climate has been a bit of a shock, but we’re adapting. The key? Drinking plenty of water and a hotel with a pool. Plus, no heavy-duty touring activities (like dusty temples) between the intense hours of noon and 5PM. One must take good care of oneself when traveling.

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$29 a night gets you quite a bit of luxury in Siem Reap.

One of the benefits of traveling in less developed countries like Cambodia is often the opportunity to see things being made by hand that are almost always created by machine elsewhere. We participated in a tour that took us through small villages outside of Siem Reap where we had the chance to see incense, rice noodles, and tofu, among other things, all crafted by hand.

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This incredible woman has been making incense sticks since she was 15. She’s now 76.

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Scented bark, used as the base for the incense sticks.

Bark and other raw materials for the incense are collected from the surrounding area, then sifted and made into a paste with water. The paste is rolled around bamboo sticks, dusted and dried in the sun.

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61 years of making incense by hand might be the embodiment of mastering one’s craft.

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Dusting the incense sticks before they’re left to dry in the sun.

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The finished incense sticks are collected into bundles and sold at the market for ceremonial use at altars such as the one below.

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An altar at a village pagoda.

We stopped at a home in a village outside of Siem Reap where fresh rice noodles are made. As with most of the homes we visited, this business is a family affair, with everyone participating in the household’s livelihood.

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The dough for these noodles is simply finely ground rice and water.

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This contraption uses the well-known engineering theory of “playground seesaw” to knead and pound the dough in shallow pans.

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The noodle dough is placed in the cylindrical press and tamped down with a wooden plunger.

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The boy wasn’t heavy enough to weigh down the press, so another family member joined in.

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Noodles gently dropping into their hot bath.

The family’s press is a simple yet ingenious human-weighted device that forces the thick, dense dough through a metal sheet pricked with tiny holes, creating the thin noodles. The noodles are quickly cooked in boiling water, then removed and drained.

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Bundles are carefully weighed, although these women are so skilled and accurate that the scale probably isn’t even necessary.

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The noodle bundles are packed in bamboo-lined rattan baskets for transport to the market and local restaurants.

Another stop was a house near Siem Reap’s wholesale market where a local family makes fresh tofu. Batches and batches are made every day and sold at the market or to a multitude of small restaurants. The “production kitchen” is of course also the family’s home.

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The wood-fired stove used for heating the soymilk.

Tofu is made in a manner very similar to cheese: fresh soy milk is heated, a coagulant is added to curdle the milk, and the mixture is pressed to remove liquid.

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The hot soymilk curdles immediately after the coagulant is added. 

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The curd is drained through fabric before being placed in the press.

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The drained curd is placed in a tray and pressed to remove liquid. Note the clever use of a bottle jack!

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Finished tofu.

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Tofu cubes, ready for sale. Tofu is always stored in liquid (usually filtered water) to keep it fresh and moist. 

If you’re interested in making your own homemade tofu, start here!