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Curd is the Word

Tofu: As U.S. demand for the low-fat soybean product grows, a Japanese firm opens a new factory in Garden Grove.

March 13, 1997|PATRICE APODACA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GARDEN GROVE — The Shinto minister stood before the shrine, where several oversized sake bottles perched high on a stand. As a harpist softly played, he offered mulberry branches and white rice paper as symbols of purity, gratefulness and sanctity.

He bowed and clapped rhythmically, and prayed for good fortune to "the principal parent of this grand and glorious universe."

And so the nation's largest tofu factory was officially opened in Garden Grove on Wednesday.

Demand for the bean curd--a staple in Asia--is increasing in the United States due to Americans' fixation on healthy foods and a growing Asian population. Domestic retail sales climbed from $40 million in 1979 to more than $130 million in 1995, according to the Soyfoods Assn.

Best known in its native country as a maker of snack foods and curry powder, Osaka-based House Foods owns and operates the new $21-million, 130,000-square-foot plant. The concern is betting that its U.S. tofu sales, until now about $10 million a year, will take off.

The new factory, which replaces House Foods' old plant in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo district, will more than double its tofu production to 150,000 pounds a day.

"House is an old, established company in Japan," said Harry Tanikawa, the sales manager of its U.S. subsidiary, House Foods America Corp.

"We'd like to educate the American consumer. We've never totally taken the opportunity to do that, and now we can."

But at its carefully orchestrated opening ceremony, House Foods also might have prayed that its U.S. expansion will help it withstand growing pressures at home.

With about $1.7 billion in annual sales, it has historically had among the highest profit margins in the Japanese food industry, said Patricia Horvath, an analyst at UBS Ltd. in Tokyo.

But House Foods' profits have sagged the past couple of years because of increased competition, the Japanese recession, and a weaker yen that has made importing raw materials more expensive. So Horvath said the company might be looking abroad for new sources of growth.

The big push in the tofu market in the United States is a bit puzzling, since the company doesn't make tofu in Japan, she said.

Still, Horvath finds House Foods' aggressiveness in the United States encouraging. In the past, she said, the company has sat back while other Japanese firms have won over American consumers with their packaged noodles.

House Foods also owns a dairy distributor in Hawaii and the five-restaurant Curry House chain in Southern California. It bought an interest in the Hinoichi tofu plant in Little Tokyo in 1983. But it didn't buy the tofu business outright for another decade, at which time the plant had been operating at full capacity for years.

At the same time, its main rival, South San Francisco-based Vitasoy, was growing quickly by acquiring smaller companies.

So observers say that House Foods' new factory, which will have 150 workers by the time it's fully operational next month, comes none too soon.

*

A staple of Asian diets for more than 1,000 years, tofu is sometimes called "meat of the fields" or "meat without a bone."

In this country, tofu has been championed by vegetarians as a meat substitute because it's high in protein but low in fat and cholesterol. They've fought to overcome the typical American impression of tofu as soggy and tasteless by promoting its chameleon-like qualities, which allow it to be molded into a variety of forms and take on the taste of anything it is mixed with.

Ironically, while there are some large tofu plants in Japan, tofu-making there remains dominated by the more than 25,000 shops where "tofu masters" adhere to age-old traditions.

In "The Book of Tofu," authors William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi describe the work of a tofu master: "His movements were precise and graceful, joined in an effortless rhythm that, at times, flowed like a dance. A true master, he held in highest esteem the traditional, natural way and the spirit of fine craftsmanship."

Though the House Foods plant is fully automated with what company officials say is state-of-the-art equipment, the basic process for making tofu remains the same.

The soybeans are cleaned, then soaked in water for half a day to soften and expand them and remove their hulls. The beans are ground, cooked and squeezed to extract the "milk." The bean fiber is discarded for cattle feed, while the soy milk is mixed with a coagulant, calcium sulfate.

The pudding-like mixture is dropped into boxes, cut and placed in packages with water, then pasteurized. From a refrigerated warehouse, the packages are shipped to distributors, supermarkets and specialty grocers.

The new plant even has a test kitchen, where a resident home economist will test recipes and consult with dietitians in hopes of encouraging greater American acceptance of tofu.

*

The Shinto ceremony, as traditional to the Japanese when opening a new business as the christening of ships is to Westerners, was meant to give the factory a proper send-off.

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