Nothing Like The Taste Of Fresh, Local Tofu

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - February 02, 2011
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It’s early on a warm, sunny morning on Mango Street, and already there’s a slow, yet steady stream of cars pulling up in front of a two-story, nondescript building. From behind an old screen door that swings back and forth as customers come and go, there’s a yeastlike, sweet aroma that drifts out into the morning air.

This is the Honda Tofu Factory in Wahiawa, where the Honda family has been grinding soybeans and hand-making blocks of thick, creamy tofu for 94 years.

As with any of the dwindling number of family food producers in Hawaii, not much about the process has changed in the nearly 10 decades of production. Dennis Honda and wife Dulcie took over the business years ago after Dennis’ father was injured in a car accident, and they are ably assisted by Josephine Honda, Dennis’ mom.

Among the three, they make tofu the old-fashioned way, soaking soybeans then grinding them down to make milk and okara.

It all starts the day before, when Dennis puts the soybeans into water to soak overnight. The next morning the beans are cleaned and ground, and put into a giant pressure cooker at a temperature of around 100 degrees. This produces roughage (okara) and soymilk.

Watching Dennis move rhythmically from one machine to another, twisting cheesecloth around warm tofu, slipping almost firm blocks into a bath of cool water then seamlessly slice each one into 40 medium blocks, offers a rare glimpse of the kind of artisanal skills that are fast disappearing in Hawaii.

But the hard part of hand-making tofu, says Dennis, is neither the physical labor nor long hours. It’s the mass-produced competition.

“There’s a lot of Mainland tofu coming into Hawaii,” he says in a matter-of-fact and uncomplaining manner. There’s less cost, he adds, for companies that don’t have to begin by shipping containers of soybeans to our islands.

But with a homogenized Mainland taste, we may be in danger of losing variety.

“All of the local tofu companies - if you put them all together - they all offer something different,” says Dennis. “Our tofu is medium, but with the few numbers of local tofu makers left there is still something to suit every taste.”

And while freshness and local flavor are good reasons to buy, there’s something about the connection of generations of one family supplying yet more generations with a staple of Hawaii’s diet.

“When we were kids,” says Wahiawa resident Dan Nakasone, “the tofu van would come around the streets. You’d run out and fill up a bowl.”

Today, there’s a strong connection to the past in the sprightly and inspiring figure of Josephine Honda, who, at 89 years old, still helps with morning deliveries, and looks forward to socializing and serving anyone who stops by.

As I leave the factory, blocks of freshly made tofu in hand, it strikes me, not for the first time, that our food choices are becoming increasingly more important. I like to think that instead of looking for a cheaper Mainland product, we’re all beginning to realize that for just a few extra dollars we can be a part of ensuring local businesses last for decades more.

“Asking for local tofu, and choosing to buy it, is a big help to us all,” says Dennis.

“Honda, A’ala, Mrs. Cheng’s, Aloha, Kanai - it doesn’t matter which one you buy,” he adds. “If people just look for local tofu, it’s a plus for all of us.”

Happy eating!

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