O‘ahu’s tofu makers, all eight of them, existed in a sort of equilibrium for decades, each brand with its own specialties and aficionados. People relished the “fresh” taste of Honda tofu from Wahiawā, or the firmer texture of Country tofu made in Hālawa. Today, however, HPR’s Noe Tanigawa found the landscape of locally produced tofu has changed dramatically.
Forget a sign, because A‘ala Tofu owners Rodney Yamauchi and his mother do not want you stopping by. They’re producing just enough for their restaurant clients, but expect to have rail coming through the shop in Iwilei soon and one more tofu shop just may bite the dust. If you want to taste their tofu, you’ll have to go to one of their restaurant clients, like Masa’s in Liliha or to Seoul Jung in Waikīkī . It is a firm style, with a light bean flavor.
“I can kind of go backwards in terms of the closures,” says Paul Uyehara, third generation owner of Aloha Tofu. He thinks back to Kaneshiro Tofu in Waipahu, Country Tofu from Chikara products in Hālawa, Kanai on Ward, Hawai‘i Tofu in Wahiawā, Honda Tofu was there too.
“The best are the neighborhood tofu shops. Where you can bring your pot, run in, have them stick a tofu in there, and take it home. That’s what we try to do, try to be a neighborhood tofu factory.”
A steady stream of customers stops by the side door at Aloha Tofu on tiny Akepo Lane in Kalihi. Yasuko is usually the one who will take your order for tofu (soft or hard), okara, aburage, or even tofu mousse in varied flavors like lilikoi and green tea. You can opt for the slightly damaged tofu blocks at a discount. The freshness and flavor of tofu obtained this way is not to be underestimated.
Uyehara says, in the old days even with so many tofu factories, there was an equilibrium in the market. People knew which of the brands was best for each purpose. Miso soup requires a fairly sturdy soft tofu, stuffed tofu requires a firm style. Mrs. Cheng makes a style of soft tofu that does hold up to stuffing---it is only available at Mānoa and Kapahulu Safeway. Aloha makes a softer soft tofu that responds well to frying in a pan with a little oyster sauce and green onions.
Granted, natto is not everyone’s cup of tea, but Aloha Tofu does make a distinctive version. The beans are fat and somewhat sweet, it’s a delightfully different local take on the Japanese delicacy. It is a must for the adventurous.
“Whenever you lose another small manufacturer, you’re losing a part of that spectrum of flavor and taste and texture that you would have had with eight factories, now it’s down to three.” More like two.
When mainland companies, primarily House brand, were brought in, they were able to undercut pricing and gain market share. House is a Japanese brand that manufactures for the U.S. market in California. Their pasteurized tofu products have a much longer shelf life than fresh tofu.
“The tofu was a little bit different but they were able to get their foot in the door basically,” Uyehara says. At the same time, local producers were aging, and second generation tofu makers were nowhere in sight. Suddenly, it seems, O‘ahu’s flowering of boutique tofu makers dwindled, one more manufacturing loss—look at your market shelves for evidence.
“Making tofu, the actual making of tofu is very simple to learn. But like my dad said, he was only satisfied with his tofu right before he retired. To him, it took him thirty years to get an acceptable level of tofu making. So it’s an easy thing to learn, like many things, but difficult to master.”
Meanwhile, Uyehara is exploring new applications---tofu poke, tofu mousse, a tofu roll cake, there’s a a tofu loco moco at their Aloha Tofu Town outlet. There’s even an okara cream puff with soy milk custard.
“It’s challenging of course to run a business in Hawai‘i. But to me, the hard work was done in the first and second generation. They built the factory and the processes and everything. We’re at the third generation. A company that has survived this long is no longer just a family company, it becomes part of the community. I’m still trying to figure out what I can contribute, whether or not our family’s involved.”
Uyehara says his appreciation for tofu is still growing.
“Flavorwise, what you want is really a fresh, “water from a spring” type of freshness is what you look for. Texture-wise, there are different textures, so it depends on what suits your own particular taste.”
Go out and explore while you can. Truly vibrant tofu production would require a discriminating public, people who can appreciate the difference between products, and believe me, in days past many on O‘ahu could identify different tofu makers blindfolded. With the limited range available now, connoisseurship is almost impossible. Still, we can sample and support the local brands: Natural Pacific, Tomori, and Oshiro on Hawai‘i Island, Tamashiro tofu on Maui, and Aloha and Mrs. Cheng’s on O‘ahu. Increasingly on O‘ahu, fresh tofu, especially sukui (super soft) tofu, is made on premises and served in Japanese restaurants. Gazen on Kapi‘olani, for example, serves a sukui tofu and a sesame (goma) tofu.