30 March 2010

Cornucopasetic Interview: Jeff Wolovitz of Heiwa Tofu

I used to live near a tofu "factory" in Sacramento, California, that made the best tofu I had, up to that time, ever had. Before discovering that tofu, I just couldn't understand why anyone would bother with the stuff. The place also made really good soy milk. Unfortunately, I have yet to find any soy milk as good, but there is a local option for tofu that is even better than the stuff I used to get in California: Heiwa Tofu.

Heiwa Tofu is run by Jeff and Maho Wolovitz. Jeff was kind enough to answer some questions about Heiwa Tofu for Part II of our interview series (read Part I with Jaime Berhanu). Now, I'm no photographer—as this blog constantly proves—but Kate Hasset is. She created a gallery of images she took on her visit Heiwa's "mini-factory," so you can take a virtual tour after reading the interview.

I only discovered your tofu sometime last year. How long now has Heiwa Tofu been in business and how long have you been making tofu?

The business turned out its first batch in September 2008. During the year the leading up to making tofu in the "mini-factory" in Camden, I practiced making it at home maybe a dozen times. It was very messy and time consuming. I'd spend four hours and end up with like three pounds of tofu. It tasted so good!

How did you come to start Heiwa? I saw on your website that you bought your tofu making equipment from a man named Rob Lovell, who had it in his barn for twenty years. There has to be a good story there. Why did he have tofu equipment in a barn in Maine for twenty years?

I was in my fourth year of teaching high school science and wanted out. I wanted to get back into the local food systems. I spent three years apprenticing on organic farms before becoming a teacher. I tossed around a handful of niches that I thought I could fill. The tofu one seemed the safest. I talked to a lot of people about it and eventually, someone mentioned that Rob used to make tofu in Rockport in the 1980's. I connected with him and he still had a lot of his equipment. Just as he was getting ready to move! He was glad to get it out of his garage and to see it getting used. He had many fond memories of his tofu making years.

Where do you get your soy beans? Are these the same beans that Lalibela Farm is using to make their tempeh?

Bob Reisner in Skowhegan. I'd like to diversify. I've talked to Henry Perkins about growing this coming year. Also, Donnie Webb in Pittson. Donnie cleaned Bob's beans for me this year and would like to try growing soybeans for me. They are all great folks. I've really enjoyed getting to know them all. We'll run out of the beans Bob grew sometime in the late spring or early summer. When that happened last year, I got beans from another Bob (Bob Crowe) who is near Albany, NY. I like and trust him a lot, too. The beans aren't certified organic, but the are tested non-GMO and pesticide free. I have so much to learn about soybeans and tofu making. I use a lot. At least 20,000 pounds this year. That takes roughly ten to twenty acres of land and will make 35,000 pounds of tofu!

Your process for making tofu is described pretty thoroughly on your site. How many beans do you go through in a given production cycle and how much tofu do those beans make?

Currently, each batch of tofu is twenty-five pounds of dry beans. My current yield is 1.6. For every pound of dry beans, I get 1.6 pounds of tofu. Bob Crowe's beans had a yield of 1.8. Same seed source, but maybe the New York summers are warmer and dryer. Over the course of a year, that small difference in yield adds up to a lot of tofu and money.

Is Heiwa Tofu a full time business for you?

By the end of the summer, we were up to six hundred pounds a week. Then things dropped off quickly once September hit. I worked hard at marketing through the fall and picked up a few biggish clients at fifty pounds a week and I've been making eight batches—320 pounds—twice a week pretty steadily since New Year's. But the business keep growing. I've begun some nine batch days to keep up with the demand, but physically, I am near my limits of production. It is such physically demanding work. I get the shop at 5:00am and work straight through till 4:00pm or 5:00pm. Go, go, go practically the whole time. I've made a couple of small changes to my process recently and actually get some time to breathe in there. Did you notice some of the very soft or rock hard tofu over the past month as I was figuring it out? [Ed.: Yes, actually, I did.] Mainly, I changed how I add the coagulant, the amount of water I cook with, and the temperature to which I heat and curdle the soymilk. I am ready to make some other changes because I won't be able to keep up with demand once summer rolls around and there are more people in Maine. I'll increase my batch size a bit. A I am hoping to get to a place where I can make 450 – 500 pounds in a twelve hour day.

It is nice to see a lot of small producers in Maine making wonderful ingredients. There seem to be more and more people trying to make a living that depends on the growing interest in eating locally produced food. Do you have any suggestions for someone who wants to start up a small food production business in Maine like yours?

Number one is to keep it simple. Also, when you are planning, figure what your average, absolutely best and worst years might looks like. I used to plan that things will take twice as long as I hoped and cost twice as much I as thought. Over the past year, I've changed them both to three times as long and three times as much!

My family drinks a lot of soy milk. When I lived in Davis, California, we were near a fantastic tofu and soy milk factory. But there is no local soy milk—as far as I know—available in Maine. Have you ever considered producing it too? Do you make soy milk at home?

We don't really use soymilk and I don't sell it. I am not convinced that it is really part of the traditional diet, but a newer trend in Asian countries. Commercial soymilk in this country is cooked at a high enough temperature to destroy most of the trypsin uptake inhibitors, but I don't cook that high of a temperature (I'd need a pressure cooker). I'll admit I haven't done much research concerning it. I've also heard that soymilk is a very strong/concentrated food
and that by not going through the chewing action when drinking it, it is harder to digest.

[Ed. I was not going to include the next question at first, but Jeff's response was just too right to pass up.]

I understand that there is, or has been for some time now, a group of people suggesting soy products, particularly unfermented soy products, are not healthy for a variety of reasons. We feed our kids (and ourselves) a lot a soy in any given week, so we looked into this issue quite thoroughly; it seems that the soy detractors have not closely read the research they refer to and have no real scientific basis for their arguments. Do you have any comments about this issue?

I try to stay out of soy politics. I believe in moderation and avoid food dogmas. You've got to feed your soul and eat what feels good.

Where can we find Heiwa Tofu in the greater Portland area?

If you look on our website, there is a current list of where you can get our tofu. For Portland, you'd find Heiwa Tofu at The Green Elephant, North Star Music Cafe, and Aurora Provisions. I am hoping to get our tofu into Silly's soon. Also, you can get it at the Friendly Toast in Porthsmouth and in Northwood, NH, at Susty's.

[Ed.: Also, you can buy it at Rosemont, of course, and through the Portland Food Coop via Crown of Maine.]

Any Parting Comments?

In this country, tofu is used in so many different ways—smoothies, vegetarian chili, etc. How does it fit into the traditional diet? In this country, it seems like tofu is a food for vegetarians and vegans. Its a meat substitute. But in Japan and China (and probably other Asian countries) almost everyone eats it regularly. In Japan, people might have small amounts of tofu everyday. It's just another protein source, rather than a substitute for meat. [Ed.: Check out the seafood and soft tofu dishes at Happy Teriyaki, for example, although it's not exactly a local, whole food haven.]

I am so happy to be involved in the local food economy as a processor. People have been so supportive everywhere I go.

Thank you, Jeff!

Jeff also left me with a recipe for "neatballs."

Italian Style Tofu Neatballs

  • 12 – 16 ounces tofu;
  • 1/4 cup walnuts, finely chopped;
  • 1/2 cup peas or grated carrot (optional);
  • 1 medium onion, minced;
  • 1/4 to 1/3 cup bread crumbs;
  • 1 egg beaten;
  • 1.5 Tbsp red miso; and
  • Dried herbs such as oregano, basil, thyme, and so forth.
Squish up all the ingredients with your hands. Really work it so it oozes out from between your fingers! Form into balls and deep fry or bake in greased casserole at 350° until browned. Cover with tomato sauce and bake for 15 minutes.


Kate. said...

Great interview, Brad! I didn't even know there was a local tofu producer, so thanks!

Brad said...

Thanks, Kate. That's great, the interview has already served it's purpose!

Mary said...

Great interview! Heiwa is absolutely the best tofu money can buy in the northeast! I buy it at the Belfast Coop. I wish it would come a little farther north--I'd buy it every week! What a cute little family business. Go Mainers.

Lukaduke said...

Great interview for a great product ! Just stumbled upon your blog and have really enjoyed the information you present... good to see other folks out there that are as up to date with the good & bad things happening in the maine food scene; black bean tempeh, mother ovens closing etc. Keep doing what your doing !