Tofu Making 2.0
Jodie Chiemi Ching
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Question: How do you transform a 67-year-old mama-san and papa-san business like tofu making into an exciting and relevant 21st century enterprise? Answer: By being innovative and persistent and by throwing heart and soul behind your craft.
That is precisely what Aloha Tofu owners Paul and Misa Uyehara are doing to keep their nearly seven decades-old tofu-making operation thriving beyond traditional tofu products, such as firm and soft tofu blocks, fried tofu, aburage skins and okara (soybean meal). They have instead been experimenting with new and fun ways to enjoy tofu through their Tofu Town restaurant in Iwilei, tofu-inspired workshops and by taking their tofu innovations out into the community.
Paul, especially, understands the challenges of being a “successor business” in Hawai‘i, passed on from generation to generation.
“Although Aloha Tofu had a strong brand awareness and loyalty, thanks to the efforts of the previous generations, the tofu industry itself has faced a relatively stagnant market,” he said. Other tofu factories have shut down, mainly due to a lack of successor owners, Uyehara said, noting that Aloha Tofu is today one of only three fresh tofu producers on O‘ahu. But, Hawai‘i is also facing stiff competition from Mainland manufacturers whose products promise a longer shelf life and are competitive in terms of price.
To counter the competition, Aloha Tofu has had to come up with creative ideas and innovative ways of implementing them.
“Innovation and creativity almost become necessary to the survival of businesses, mostly due to the changing demographics,” Uyehara said. “Aloha Tofu’s loyal customers are disappearing and we need to make stronger appeals to the next generation of tofu eaters. Why should they eat tofu when there are so many other choices for proteins out there?” he asks.
The answer to that question lies in the unique ways the company shares its love for tofu with the community.
Aloha Tofu Town
One of the first opportunities presented itself when Aloha Tofu decided to spread its wings in a dining space just around the corner from the Dole Cannery theaters. The space had previously been used as bakery and prep room. “We initially did not have plans to use it at first, but it seemed like a waste of space, so we decided to implement the concept of Aloha Tofu Town,” explained Paul.
All of the dishes at Aloha Tofu Town are tofu-inspired. A different tofu entrée is offered Monday through Thursday, with an Aloha Friday tofu bento closing off the week. Besides the entrees, Aloha Tofu Town offers oboro tofu (soft, custardy form of firm tofu taken before pressing), tofu poke, musubi (riceballs) with sesame and soybeans (tofu is made from soybeans) and other dishes daily. The company is also known for its delicious tofu mousse dessert, which comes in a variety of flavors: chocolate, strawberry, pineapple, mango, coffee caramel and cheesecake. And their popular Okara Cream Puffs are available on Mondays and Thursdays.
Collaborations: Tofu Day and OHANA Soy Sauce
Last year, Aloha Tofu partnered with Gazen Izakaya restaurant, located on Kapi‘olani Boulevard across from Kaimukï High School, in hosting a Tofu Day dinner on Oct. 2, which is known as Tofu Day. Why Oct. 2? Because tö in Japanese is “10” and fu means “two.” Tofu Day is observed on Oct. 2, the second day of the 10th month.
“We asked Chef Hiro at Gazen restaurant to come up with a tofu-based dinner menu using our products,” explained Paul. “I also offered to make yuba (tofu bean curd) for his dinner. We had over 100 attendees and hope to have this as an annual event to celebrate tofu.”
The menu included items with amusing names such as the Uni-Cycle, a silky house-made tofu with uni (sea urchin), served in a savory sea of aonori (dried seaweed) sauce; Roll-in Cow, fresh yuba maki (roll wrapped with yuba, thin tofu skins) of rare ribeye, avocado and tomato, topped with shoyu tare; Surf N Turf, which is two types of panko-fried kushikatsu (deep-fried skewered meat or vegetables) skewers featuring either shrimp, mozzarella and shiso (beefsteak plant), or tofu, ginger and veggies wrapped in pork belly. The meal ended with a coffee-infused soymilk blancmange called “Oyasumi.”
Wife Misa spearheaded another project aimed at enhancing the flavor of the company’s tofu.
“Misa was able to get in touch with a shoyu maker in Hiroshima, where she’s from, and work with them to bottle their shoyu in our own private label.” The shoyu is called “OHANA Soy Sauce” and is available at Aloha Tofu’s factory on Akepo Lane in Pälama and at Aloha Tofu Town.
According to Paul, the company is always looking to collaborate with local companies to offer their customers new and interesting products.
Aloha Tofu’s Cooking Workshops
Aloha Tofu Town’s wizard and lead cook is Hiroko Iijima, the first certified tofu-meister outside of Japan, which means she is an expert at tofu and knows how to best use it as an ingredient. “With their added knowledge and understanding, the workshops seemed like a natural progression to share more about tofu with those interested in it,” Paul explained.
To date, three workshops have been held at Tofu Town — tofu-making, cooking with tofu and making okara miso (miso made using okara — this miso can be made at home).
The Uyeharas also invited other local and international experts to share their knowledge of tofu. “At the ‘Cooking with Tofu’ workshop, we asked a guest tofu-meister, Keiko Inoue, who runs an izakaya (pub) on Maui, to share some of her recipes using tofu.” For the okara miso-making workshop, the Uyeharas invited guest tofu-meister Yuki Matsuda from Japan. “We had a great turnout for this workshop and we also had a translator,” he said. Matsuda shared her okara miso recipe, which does not use any heat in making the miso.
Continuing the Legacy as the Aloha Tofu ‘Ohana
Paul and Misa Uyehara are carrying on the legacy of Paul’s grandparents, Kamesaburo and Tsuruko Uyehara, who became the new owners of their friend’s tofu factory in 1950. Aloha Tofu survived many challenges over the years, including a fire that destroyed the factory in 1966. They rebuilt the business, determined to continue producing fresh tofu for Hawai‘i consumers.
Aloha Tofu is now a household name in Hawai‘i, for which they credit the community’s support.
“I think our company’s story is a well-worn tale for family businesses that show first-generation struggles, second-generation efforts and third-generation challenges to keep the company moving forward,” said Paul.
“Although we are still a family business, we now have a broader definition of what ‘family’ means. The emphasis moving forward will be on how the company can benefit our employees, our company’s ‘ohana, and best serve the supporters of Aloha Tofu, our customer ‘ohana. We see ourselves as a part of the community in which we live and work and would like the opportunity to continue in this capacity.”
If you would like to attend future Aloha Tofu workshops and events, contact the Uyeharas through the Aloha Tofu website, www.aloha-tofu.com and click on the “Contact” tab, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jodie Ching is a freelance writer and blogger who also works for her family’s accounting firm in Kaimukï. She has a bachelor’s degree in Japanese from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and is a past recipient of the Okinawa Prefectural Government Foundation scholarship.