Natto meets bacillus at Aloha Tofu factory
LEGEND HAS IT that natto was discovered by an 11th century samurai whose camp was hastily packed up during an attack. The cooked soybeans stayed warm in their bags of straw and eventually fermented.
Apocryphal though it may be, the tale points to the origins of natto, which ferments through a bacterium found naturally in straw. Today, a starter culture containing Bacillus subtilis natto is available commercially, speeding up the process, though some traditional producers still pack soybeans in straw and ferment them under old-fashioned charcoal fires.
Japan has hundreds of natto makers whose products are available by the dozens in the freezer case of Asian markets in the United States. But Hawaii is the only state in the nation that offers fresh, locally made natto in ordinary supermarkets.
Aloha Tofu Factory has made natto for as long as third-generation owner Paul Uyehara can remember. On a recent Sunday, the rubber-boot-clad company president arrives at the factory at 3 a.m. to start soaking a 150-pound batch of soybeans, which will yield 1,300 packages of natto shipped weekly statewide.
By 9 a.m., the beans have doubled in size and are ready to cook. Uyehara drains the water and seals the beans in a pressure cooker. At 10:25, he closes all the valves and cranks up the pressure to 10 pounds per square inch. Pressure-cooking takes only 15 minutes. Uyehara releases excess steam through a pipe into a steam room, where the beans will eventually sit and ferment. Five minutes later, he opens the vat to cool.
The natto bacillus has been dissolved in water and awaits the beans, which are now emptied into five large tubs and sprinkled with the solution in layers. As each tub is filled, it's wheeled into the steam room to stay moist.
Then, one by one, tubs are wheeled back out for packaging. Natto, like yogurt, ferments in its package. Each foam clamshell is filled by hand, covered with a plastic sheet, secured with a rubber band and stacked in a tray. A total of 22 trays returns to the steam room, which is heated to 110 degrees before the heat is turned off. The beans ferment overnight.
The next morning, each package is slipped into a plastic bag, sealed and stored in a refrigerated case for shipment.
Uyehara, 39, has been working at the tofu factory since age 11. He says he and his siblings used to be embarrassed to be seen in the Aloha Tofu truck, and would ask to be let out a block away from their destination. All the cousins worked at the factory at one time or another.
As the kids grew up and went their separate ways, however, Uyehara came to a crossroads. He didn't want to stay with the business, but he couldn't bear to see the company started by his grandfather go down.
"My opportunities for education and travel were because the company was successful," he reasons. "You kind of have to give back. The company is a living entity, like the family." So he prepared to take the helm by pursuing Asian studies at the University of Hawaii. Then he spent four years in Hiroshima, where he met his wife.
Aloha Tofu is one of only a half-dozen tofu makers left on Oahu, whose numbers continue to shrink as mainland products eat into the local market -- just as frozen natto from Japan fills the cases at Marukai and Don Quijote. Kanai Tofu in Kakaako is the island's only other natto maker.
Some customers still prefer their natto fresh, however, so Uyehara has his eye on packaging improvements to pitch the product to a contemporary crowd.
Oddly, his is the first generation in the family to actually eat natto, a taste he acquired in Japan.
"We're Okinawan, and they don't eat it," he said.