Fresh tofu is manna from the heavens and impressive in its austere simplicity. If you can get your hands on a new slab, all you need to do is take a spoon and give it a little taste. No heat or additional adornments are necessary; the natural sweetness of the soy is enough to hold you over and wish for seconds.
“I like to just put it over spaghetti,” Koki Sato says. “Yes. Just spaghetti.”
Sato’s family owns Meiji Tofu in Gardena, which specializes in non-GMO soymilk and tofu. They’re the only Japanese tofu maker in the greater Los Angeles area. Sato is the son of the owner, head tofu maker, and has been behind the reins of the business for 14 years now.
It’s 6 a.m. in the morning on a Sunday and Sato, wearing a baseball hat embossed with the phrase, “Soyfresh,” has been in the back room of his tofu shop since 5:30 a.m. This is considered a late start. On weekdays, Koki begins his workday at 2 a.m.
The entire operation takes place in a teeny tiny store on Western Avenue in Gardena. There’s one machine and enough room for two, maybe three, people to walk around.
Soybeans come from Ohio, sourced from a company called Kanematsu, where the beans are GMO-free and planted with organic practices. At Meiji’s, they are soaked overnight, and then put through a squeezing machine that makes them into soymilk. The milk is then strained, divided into containers, and hand-coagulated using drops of nigari – or deep-sea water.
It sounds simple, but different varieties of tofu require different ratios of coagulant. The firmer the tofu, the more nigari is needed. Also, different breeds of soybeans yield different flavors. The permutations are endless and Koki himself is a fan of experimentation.
He tells a story of a man he only knows as Mr. Oh Momo, a top tofu maker in Japan who made a visit to Meiji because he had heard there were people making Japanese tofu in Los Angeles and decided to check it out.
“Mr. Oh Momo is a tofu scientist,” Sato says. “He taught me how to wash the soybeans and how to soak it. Different soaking times will produce different flavors. Another factor is temperature.”
Sato eventually made a pilgrimage to Japan to shadow Mr. Oh Momo and, inspired, started his own line of experimental tofu at Meiji.
“When I designed this tofu, I wanted to give people something they’ve never used before,” Sato says, referring to a product he calls Supreme Tofu. Supreme Tofu is meant to be consumed simply. Add a scoop of jam or honey and eat it with a spoon. Its consistency is akin to pudding. This was done on purpose.
“Honestly. I just really love pudding,” Sato admits.
Each day, Sato cranks out 500 to 600 tofu bricks and 50 to 75 gallons of soymilk using 180 to 200 pounds of soybeans, a tiring five-hour-long process that’s overseen by Sato and his brother, Kurato.
Deliveries are made around town and then Meiji closes its doors at 1 p.m. The day is then repeated six times. Tuesday is their only day off.
The Sato family’s efforts have not been overlooked. “The biggest moment of my tofu life was when I found out Providence [restaurant] was using my soymilk,” Koki Sato says. Sweet Rose Creamery is another favorite customer. They use Meiji’s milk for their dairy-free ice cream.
The family business primarily distributes to Japanese supermarkets in the area and sells their product through GoodEggs, a farm-to-home grocery delivery service.
It’s a small-scale operation but the quality is unbeatable. Their soymilk is undeniably thick and creamy. Dilute it for a more conventional experience or, make your own tofu with it. “I sell it thick on purpose because I want to give my customers a chance to make their own tofu,” Sato says.
His tofu, raw, is remarkably sweet. No sugar has been added; it’s all in the bean and production process. He also makes a version that comes out a beautiful, pastel green. It’s edamame tofu. The bright, green hue is completely natural. It comes from the edamame beans – baby soybeans that are plucked before maturity. The differences are subtle; edamame has a slightly nuttier flavor. Sato recommends consuming his products as soon as possible for optimal flavor.
“Tofu is not a tasteless health food,” Meiji’s Instagram feed screams. That seems to be their guiding philosophy.
“It shouldn’t be just, ‘I eat tofu because it’s healthy,’” Sato explains. “It should be ‘I eat tofu because it’s delicious.’”
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