#109 Koji Fine Foods

Denver, Shoyu Maker at Koji Fine Foods

“One thing that people can do to make our little business a little more successful financially is to buy direct. We get many inquiries about where people can buy our products. When you find a local business you like, most of us have websites with web stores. Most often, we deliver right to your doorstep. We also have our market calendars online. Come down and say “Hi’. Buying direct saves the small business owner the overwhelming expenses of distribution.”

For the past 10 years, Denver has been experimenting and brewing Koji fermented foods. Koji, also known as Japan’s national mold, is best described as any grain that has been inoculated with a type of mold called Aspergillus Oryzae, a naturally occurring fermentation culture. It is used as a Japanese fermentation starter and is the key ingredient in many Japanese food products, notably soy sauce, miso, and sake.

Denver’s journey to pursue Koji fermented foods has not been an easy one. Being a Canadian guy on the West Coast making a traditionally Japanese product rooted to their culinary culture sometimes raised eyebrows. Introducing foreign foods fermented with Koji to the local Canadian Health Authorities, the Farmers Markets and, customers has also been a big challenge. It has taken some time and patience before people understand what Koji is: It is a very safe mold and is the foundation of umami in many fermented products.

VOICE(V): “How did you discover Koji and decide to make a food business that is traditionally Japanese?”

Denver(D):What got me started was after a family member who was going through chemotherapy lost a sense of taste. The only flavour that they could taste was umami of soy sauce. I started to investigate the product and how it was made, only to find out that the majority of Canadians don’t know what real shoyu tastes like. Canada is one of the world’s largest soybean producing countries yet, there is no one who makes shoyu locally. I remember as a child growing up in Maplewood, North Vancouver, there were over 20 sushi restaurants on Lonsdale Avenue alone, and I loved sushi as well as other Japanese foods, but I never had a chance to taste a really good authentic shoyu. The fact of the matter is the mass produced shoyu that’s available in North America is often fermented in a matter of days or hours, has sodium benzoate and caramel flavour, and is designed by flavour engineers to “taste great”. Those are not ingredients of real shoyu or how it is made.”

So, Denver embarked on a journey to make the first shoyu made in Canada. After watching a show by Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern about a man in Kentucky who makes soy sauce in bourbon barrels, he was convinced that he could brew soy sauce here in Vancouver. It was this very soy sauce from Kentucky that Denver tasted for the first time as the closest thing to the real shoyu. He reached out to William Shurtleff, the author of “The Book of Miso” and asked many questions. He made educational trips to Japan twice in 2018 and 2019 and deepened his knowledge of shoyu making, variety and quality at Japanese shoyu breweries. He did not think twice about how people interpret him as a foreign guy (gaijin) enwrapped in shoyu production business. He pushed himself forward and started Canada’s first shoyu microbrewery in Chilliwack.

D: “Through many trial and error, I developed my own recipe of a Canadian shoyu applying some Japanese techniques I learned on my journey. My shoyu is made from organic Quebec soybeans, organic toasted Saskatchewan wheat berries, and sea salt from Vancouver Island Salt Co. Better yet, it is fermented in Okanagan red wine barrels for a year. As many people would have preferred, it is not low sodium and not gluten-free, but it is authentic and made with time and passion. The real flavour is there, and I am proud to say that my shoyu is 100% locally made.”

V: “Since shoyu takes a long time for fermentation, what do you do during downtime?”

D: “I make miso balls! My 2 children love miso soup and they wanted to bring it to their school lunches. I came up with a healthy and quick way of making fresh miso soup by rolling up miso into a small ball with tasty plant-based seasonings. Miso balls are perfect for a quick desk lunch for your home office or children’s school lunches. You can simply drop a miso ball in one cup of hot water, stir, steep, and enjoy. Miso balls are sold in recyclable plastic containers at the Farmers Markets and come in 5 unique flavors including Nori, Roasted Garlic, Spicy, Thai Red Curry, and Ginger Sesame. My big dream is to see my miso balls at Starbucks one day. I see a tremendous opportunity selling miso soups as coffee culture.”

V: “Has Covid-19 brought on new challenges for your business?”

D: “The biggest challenge at the Farmers Market is sampling. How do I translate the difference of real shoyu when people can’t sample? What presentation can translate better than “here, taste this”?  The flavour speaks itself. It is very frustrating in that sense. Also, I have lost quite a few good relationships with restaurants amid Covid-19, so I focus more online and direct sales to customers. That’s where most of our sales are now is generated. When I started my own business, I was in the commissary kitchen with 5 other businesses, and I am the only one still operating and growing. Most of the others focused too soon on the retailers who take large margins from their products. My business philosophy is to start small and let it grow organically. For me, it is a happy business if I can sell shoyu to my local Vancouver community and to my loyal customers.”

V: “How do you incorporate shoyu into your cooking at home?”

D: “I always use my shoyu with sushi, gyoza, and dumplings. It makes great noodle dish with spoonful of shoyu, sake, and sugar. I finish any dish with a splash of shoyu. It is not complicated as it goes with everything. “

Denver`s passion for Koji fermented foods never fades. He spoke passionately that he still gets goosebumps every time he smells freshly made Koji. The same tone of passion he expressed when we first encountered him at the market 2 years ago. The Canadian guy is on a continuous journey to perfecting his artisan shoyu.

VOICE’s Wisdom on Shoyu: Shoyu has been around over 2,000 years! It is an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine. Traditional, artisan-produced shoyu contains 10 times the antioxidants of red wine and provides potential health benefits including gut health, cancer, and blood pressure.

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