Soy to the world: Small businesses explore varied tastes, textures


Alvin and Dorothy Kunishi, owners of Sacramento Tofu, the oldest Japanese American family-owned tofu company in Northern California. photo by Paul Kitagaki Jr. ©2011

Megumi Natto

Natto, this sticky, stringy and stinky experience is not one to be missed. photo courtesy of Japan Traditional Foods, Inc.cheeses, the smell


It’s sticky, stringy and it’s stinky (but in a good way). Like the ripest of natto will shock people initially, but reward those that don’t shy away from it with its depth of flavor and multiple health benefits. Often found on a Japanese sushi maki menu, if you haven’t heard of it or tried it, natto is an experience that is not to be missed.

Sticky in texture, natto can be a bit tricky to handle, at first. Be forewarned: Good natto (fermented soybeans) strings can stretch up to four feet, so try to avoid gesturing with your fork or chopsticks. But savor the strings — caused by the enzyme nattokinase, a special enzyme found only in natto, these sticky strings help to dissolve blood clots and thin blood.

Minami Satoh, president of Sebastopol, Calif.-based Japan Traditional Foods Inc., noticing the lack of readily available fresh natto in the U.S., decided to bring Megumi Natto to the health food scene.

Megumi Natto is a fresh, never-frozen, handmade natto produced locally from high-quality, USDA-grade organic soybeans. Full of vitamins, enzymes, minerals and amino acids, natto is a superfood that is good for bones, intestines, and cell health.

Natto also contains tryptophan, an amino acid that helps prevent brain aging. So while it may not make you necessarily smarter, it’ll help maintain your brain for longer. (And who doesn’t need that?)

Minh Tsai, owner of the Hodo Soy Beanery, holding re-hydrated organic soybeans, which come from a farming co-op in the Midwest. photo by Vivien Kim Thorp

Hodo Soy Beanery

Hodo literally means “good bean.” With its own “bean-to-block” production facility in West Oakland, Calif., Hodo Soy Beanery keeps a commitment to making and distributing the freshest tofu possible, taking good beans and creating a phenomenal product.

After growing up in Vietnam with ready access to fresh tofu, Minh Tsai was disappointed with what was available to him in local supermarkets. Deciding to take matters into his own hands, he started selling his own handmade tofu at farmers markets, and eventually left his job in finance to dedicate his life to creating the freshest tofu available on the market.

Hodo Soy also makes other tofu products, such as soy noodles, soy custard and yuba, a delicate skin of tofu. They also create original pre-prepared foods, including Cilantro Tofu Salad and Spicy Soy Croquettes.

No artificial coagulants or preservatives are used in Hodo Tofu, and the soymilk is made only with organic soybeans and filtered water. This tofu is so fresh, it is made with the goal to be in front of the customer within 12 hours of production. This doesn’t go unnoticed, as select restaurants throughout the San Francisco Bay Area select Hodo Tofu as their go-to for tofu.

San Jose Tofu

Chester Nozaki (R) with wife Amy (L), owners of San Jose Tofu, one of the last handmade tofu shops in the country. photo by Kota Morikawa

While you are sleeping in your bed or finishing up a bad movie, the people of San Jose Tofu have already been working hard for several hours making tofu. After several hours of soaking, soybeans are then tended to for 10 to 11 hours straight, from two in the morning to about noon, slowly turning into tofu step-by-step. Soaking, steaming, smashing, boiling — and have we mentioned that this whole process is done by hand?

In a time of factories and mass-production, San Jose Tofu is a rarity of its kind, where they choose to spend more time to make a higher-quality product by hand than what could be created faster with a machine. With the tofu-making process being so labor intensive and more companies choosing to automate, San Jose Tofu remains as one of the last handmade tofu-shops in the country.

It is no wonder that this tofu sometimes sells out, with people driving for miles just to buy it. With a taste and texture that can’t compare to a mass-produced tofu, San Jose Tofu is worth the wait, and a drive — it’s a labor of love that you won’t find anywhere else.

Sacramento Tofu

The taste of Sacramento Tofu can be described best with the word “assari,” a Japanese term which means “simple and refreshing.” While good tofu shouldn’t be too soft or too hard, Sacramento Tofu is available in a variety of textures from silken to extra firm, expanding its versatility in dishes so there’s something for everyone.

Alvin and Dorothy Kunishi, owners of Sacramento Tofu, the oldest Japanese American family-owned tofu company in Northern California. photo by Paul Kitagaki Jr. ©2011

In 1979, Alvin Kunishi, a nuclear engineer, and his wife Dorothy Kunishi, a school teacher, were faced with the daunting task of carrying on Alvin’s ailing father’s tofu company, with little knowledge on how to run the business. Now, years later, Sacramento Tofu is the oldest Japanese American family-owned tofu company in Northern California, and its legacy continues to live on strong to this day.

With 6,000 pounds of tofu being produced each week in their state-of-the-art facility, Sacramento Tofu is distributed to markets and groceries throughout the Bay Area for everyone to enjoy.





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