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Hawai‘i Tofu Chronicles

noe tanigawa
noe tanigawa

 In the wider world, tofu is getting beyond its bland white cube image, turning up barbecued or even as a mousse.  In Hawai‘i, we’ve had a wealth of fresh tofu since the plantation days, and over the years, Hawai‘i has enjoyed a unique range of neighborhood tofu styles, often available direct from the factory.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports recent closures have left just a few local makers serving the fresh tofu market today.   

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
Mao-chi Tseng, proprietor of Mrs. Cheng's Tofu factory, with a new paddle for stirring soy milk. He says his philosophy is, be ready for anything!

Tofu was definitely made on the plantations by Japanese and probably Chinese immigrants.  Tofu followed them off the plantations too.

Howard Kodama, buyer for KTA stores on Hawai‘i island remembers.   “They used to have what they called the yasai man, he used to come with the truck peddlers, house to house.  The tofu was floating in the water and you bring your own bowl.”

They still have 4 tofu makers on Big Island.  About two or three years ago, Natural Pacific Tofu changed hands but is still making tofu in Kea‘au.  Tomori Tofu also has a new owner and has branched out but  is still making some tofu in Hilo. The largest tofu factory is Oshiro Tofu, which sells from the Floral Mart location in Hilo. 

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
At Mrs. Cheng's Tofu factory, high ceilings allow air circulation as this piece of equipment extracts the soy milk from the bean.

  Kaua‘i no longer has a tofu maker, Big Save in Kapa‘a sells the off-island House brand tofu.  Tamashiro Tofu is the only factory left on Maui.  Ridge at Times K?hei says they sell both Tamashiro and the House brand from California.

“Tamashiro, honestly, is a way better tasting product.  I guess you can’t really tell because tofu is tofu, right?”

Sadly, many people cannot tell a difference between the pasteurized good for months, and the fresh, delivered twice a week.  Many, however, can.

“I know some people that they gotta use tofu, they plan for it, because you want it fresh.”

“In 1984, when I took over the business, they had about seven or eight tofu companies, ” says

Mao-chi Tseng.  He and his wife Mei Liang, pharmacists in Taiwan, bought Mrs. Cheng’s Tofu factory in P?lolo and soon found they needed to find a niche amongst all the other tofu makers—Honda, Hawai‘i, Kanai, Aloha and more!  They upgraded to this shop on Kalihi Street over 20 years ago.   

“With tofu everybody uses almost the same ingredients.  But if you adjust a little bit, the temperature and time, that makes us different from the others.”

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
The warm soy milk is bottled and sold as is, or with a little maple syrup sweetening. With the addition of a coagulant, soy milk become tofu.

Different in terms of texture and flavor.  Tseng uses non-GMO soybeans from the US and a pharmaceutical grade nigari or coagulant.  He’s especially proud of his soft tofu, which is firm enough to be stuffed.  It’s only sold retail at 2 stores (Safeway M?noa and Kapahulu) and at higher end restaurants.  Fifty to sixty percent of Mrs. Cheng’s production goes to restaurants, the remainder to markets around O‘ahu or Chinatown.

“Because we don’t put any preservatives, please change the water, fresh water every day,”  says Tseng.  Do that and he says your tofu will last up to 10 days.  His Mrs. Cheng’s brand is known for having a slightly beanier flavor than other tofu.  Customers stop by his shop for soy milk, firm tofu, soft tofu, a baked firm tofu called soy cheese, and tofu fa---a silky tofu served with a sugary sauce.  It’s best to stop by Mrs. Cheng’s shop on Kalihi Street between 11am and 4:30pm. 

Tseng says his wife likes to pan fry the soft tofu, adding a little shoyu and green onions.  Tseng’s favorite way to eat tofu is cold, with shoyu and a little grated ginger or some shaved bonito (katsuobushi).  Simple and refreshing, especially in summer!

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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