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Shi Qingxiang is known to friends and customers as "Tofu Beauty"-not because of her looks, but because she is a master tofu maker.

Tofu, one of the most common and least expensive foods in China, is a key source of extra income for many people in Hunan province.

Shi, 42, runs a tofu factory in Pinglang village, home to the Miao ethnic group for hundreds of years. The unique quality of the region"s mountain spring water and locally grown soybeans have given Pinglang tofu widespread recognition.

"Our tofu is so fragrant and sweet that no dipping sauce is even required," she said.

Historical records show the local soybean planting and tofu making began about 300 years ago, when the exchange of products and techniques between the Miao and Han peoples was encouraged.

Shi"s grandfather, Shi Guangyao, 81, said the village was famous for its tofu as far back as he can remember. He recalls that travelers would purposely pass through the village to buy tofu.

"As the old saying goes, there are three sufferings in life: poling a boat, forging iron and making tofu," Shi Guangyao said, adding that making tofu is extremely laborious and offers only skimpy profits.

Starting from the late 1990s, more young people-including Shi Guangyao"s four children-left the village for jobs in cities. But he couldn"t part with the stone mill he inherited from his father, so he continued to use it, making tofu for his children when they returned home for the annual Chinese New Year holiday.

In 2009, Shi Qingxiang, the family"s youngest member, returned home and opened a restaurant with her husband, using her entire savings from years of working in the city. Her flagship dish was her family"s tofu recipe.

The market response was surprisingly good. "Some customers lined up hours just for a bite of our tofu," she said.

Shi Qingxiang"s success inspired a poverty alleviation team to help her register and promote the Pinglang tofu, which the brand later added to the protection list of ethnic traditional culture.

Her food proved a hit in 2012 at a New Year"s gift fair in Changsha, Hunan"s capital, where she laid on a tofu-making presentation. This led to several business cooperation opportunities.

"We sold out of a week"s stock on the first day," Shi Qingxiang said.

Through the efforts of the poverty alleviation team, the village"s drinking water project was completed. Spring water now runs directly into every household. In addition, tourism-related infrastructure was built.

In December 2014, Shi Qingxiang and her fellow villagers started a cooperative and introduced advanced packing machines. Dried and vacuum-packed tofu products were developed to extend shelf life and boost sales.

Over 30 villagers, including 20 registered as low-income earners, have joined the cooperative. Last year, its earnings topped 800,000 yuan ($120,000).

"I was embarrassed when people called me "Tofu Beauty"in the past, but I now realize it"s a compliment and I should continue to work hard to be worthy of it," Shi said.

Xinhua