Meiji Tofu owner Koki Sato, 35, is the only Japanese tofu maker in the L.A. area — and one of four in California, to the best of his knowledge. At his shop, he serves up tofu to be eaten plain, served cold and drizzled with soy, or perhaps a dollop of honey. It’s impossibly delicate, like a fresh mozzarella.
Those of us living in the United States can’t begin to understand the subtleties or refinement of tofu in Japan, according to Sato. Drive to Meiji Tofu in Gardena, however, and you’ll be a little closer to comprehension. Get there before they close at 1 p.m. though, because they almost always sell out of their product, made fresh each morning (starting at 2 a.m. to be exact, which is when Sato wakes up six days a week).
Meiji’s specialty is the supreme tofu: it’s made with twice as many soybeans as their other varieties, so it’s denser. They also carry zaru tofu, literally translating to basket tofu — it’s served in a plastic basket evocative of its bamboo heritage. It allows liquid to drain, yielding a concentrated product. They also carry traditional block tofu in soft, medium and firm. The firmness of tofu is more about personal preference than being better suited to one dish or another, according to Sato.
It’s not uncommon for customers to eat the tofu plain with a spoon before they make it all the way home, and some Yelp reviews claim that they’ve “never tasted tofu like this before - not even in Japan.” Personally, Sato prefers his tofu with jam – any kind. Or marmalade, honey, or strawberries or peaches. “I have a huge sweet tooth,” he admits. He also likes crumbling it over pasta.
Tofu is surprisingly versatile; it’s elevated in its artisanal quality, but mundane in its omnipresence at Japanese mealtimes. “Tofu in Japanese culture is pretty much breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s always there on the dinner table,” Sato explains. He grew up in rural Southern Japan, in Kagoshima, where his grandparents were rice farmers. Tofu was on the menu every single meal, he recalls. “So you didn’t really think about it.”
A typical Japanese breakfast is comprised of “rice, miso soup, last night’s leftovers, radishes, pickles and a brick of tofu maybe,” he explains. He’s referring to hiyayakko, a dish of chilled tofu block garnished with various toppings, including soy sauce, dry bonito, and green onions.
“Tofu has never been seen as a main dish, even though it can be, if you do ma po tofu, or tofu hot pot. It can stand on its own, but traditionally it’s been a side dish.”
Japanese tofu, furthermore, tends to be softer than its Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean counterparts, although there are exceptions – think tau hu nuoc duong, a custard-like Vietnamese tofu in ginger syrup.
“We as a culture prefer softer tofu,” Sato explains. “A lot of it is texture, and the way it sits on your palette. And the way it’s prepared. I don’t think I’ve ever come across Chinese tofu that I could eat out of a package.”
Sato is simultaneously elevating tofu while returning it to its artisanal roots – a handmade, small batch product with carefully selected ingredients. He went through ten different soybean providers to find non-GMO and organic beans that had adequate protein content, finally settling on a Japanese company from the Midwest. And while he admits that Japanese soybeans are superior to American ones, they’re simply price prohibitive to import.
“I went to Oh Momo Tofu in Tokyo,” he tells me. “That tofu was pretty awesome.”
Sato has his fans as well, especially since Eater featured him in a video. “I’ve gotten calls from all over the world. I’ve had emails from Romania and Jerusalem and Paris, Mexico City, Vietnam, Korea. Like ‘Hey, can we get your product?’”
“Apparently there’s one tofu maker in Romania, and he makes firm tofu and firm tofu only, and he was fascinated that we were able to make soft tofu. And he was like, ‘Hey, how do you make soft tofu; I’m the only tofu maker in Romania,’” he laughs.
Sato is quick, however, to admit that there are no secrets to his recipe. “There’s really only one way of making tofu,” he explains: soak soybeans, grind them, cook the paste, squeeze the soymilk out, and pick out your nigari, or bittern – a coagulating agent that is fascinatingly extracted from seawater.
The small variables entail what kind of machines are used, the temperature at which you cook the paste, and for how long. “The creative variables become almost scientific,” he says. How cleanly you wash your soybeans, what’s the temperature of the water you soak them in, for example – and that’s just the prep work.
“I’ve met tofu makers that like to keep their tofu at 75 degrees for a few minutes before they crank up the temperature to 102,” he says. The permutations fluctuate by a handful of degrees and minutes.
For his part, Sato has an explanation for his success that would sound cliché if it didn’t ring so true: “You have to love what you do, or else I don’t think it translates into the finished product.” Which is why he wakes up at 2 a.m. six days a week to make tofu.
“I’m constantly looking for someone who can take over what I do,” he admits. “But I just haven’t been lucky yet. It’s not the training. Training’s not the issue. It’s the commitment. It’s heart.
So far I haven’t been able to meet somebody who shares the same level of love as I do, and I don’t know if I ever will. But I hope, one day.”
Top Image: Tofu on a plate | Stu Spivack / Flickr