Tonami has loved cooking since she was a teen, and in those days when her parent cooked mostly Japanese food, she would browse through bookstores and memorize recipes, then go home and try her hand at making various Western and European dishes at home. She has had even more opportunities to experience a variety of food cultures since moving to the multicultural Canada in 2000. Today, not only Japanese food, but also Sri Lankan, Korean, Chinese, French, Italian, Vietnamese, and other cuisines can be served on her daily table at home.
Tonami was inspired to start Vankoji when she started making miso as a hobby. At first, she found that the miso available in Canada tasted different from Japanese miso, and at the same time, imported products contained many additives. Making home-made miso also gave her a good opportunity to teach children about Japanese culture. With the Shio-koji boom in Japan, she eventually decided to try her hand at making her own koji from scratch. She bought seed koji in Japan and started making Shio-koji from koji she produced at home. Then, a thought came to her mind, ”Since it is salt, wouldn't it go well with food from many different cultures?” With this idea, Tonami began selling Shio- koji at Nikkei National Museum&Cultural Center in Burnaby in 2013. Since then, the "koji" culture has slowly spread in Vancouver, and in 2016, Vankoji was born as a business. Because of her love of international cuisine, she is able to make the appeal of koji and its umami power widely applicable to people from different cultures. She spoke in detail about how to enjoy koji and its secret recipes that you will never forget once you try them!
VOICE (V): Many Canadians are still new to koji. How do you explain the unique Japanese food culture of koji?
Tonami (T): “It took some time, but I started by educating people on what Shio-koji is. When I explain it face-to-face at farmers' markets, I always tell them first that it is "Probiotics seasoning that can be used in place of salt. Because of the fermentation process, koji has about 50% less sodium than regular salt. And all of my products are unpasteurized, so you can take in a lot of good living enzymes. I focus my talk on all these benefits for people to better understand my products.
Canadians are very health-conscious, and most of all, they like to eat delicious food. I tell them that "Koji makes food taste good!” or "Umami is the moment when you eat and feel like `Oh`!” Recently, many customers already know what “umami" is. 85% of Vankoji's customers are non-Japanese, and more than half of them are repeat customers. They may not understand the whole science behind koji, but the bottom line is the food tastes so much better with it!”
V: What makes Vankoji`s products unique?
T: “Because it is made locally, it contains none of the alcohol or additives often found in imported products. It all goes through all natural fermentation for 2-3 weeks, without the use of incubator, to complete the process. The koji rice is from California. We try to use as many local ingredients as possible, although not all of them can be local or organic.”
V: Can you tell us about Vankoji products and the recipes that go with them?
T: “Original Shio-koji is truly a versatile seasoning. You can use it for Japanese, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Korean, and many other dishes, and you can jazz it up in so many ways. If you want to arrange Shio-koji in a Mediterranean style, use lemon juice, herbs and garlic. For Italian, just cook it with diced tomatoes to make a delicious sauce and no bouillon is needed. Shio-koji is so versatile that I use it in 60% of my daily cooking.
Shoyu- koji has about 16 times more umami than regular soy sauce. It is a sweet soy sauce with more umami. You can make a delicious spinach goma-a-e without using dashi broth, add green chili or garlic for an Asian style, or combine it with fish sauce. These two products are always the best sellers at farmers' markets.
The products I call handy dandy are Garlic-koji and BBQ Koji. Garlic-koji is Shio-koji with garlic and black pepper. BBQ-koji is Shoyu-koji with a bit of sugar and kochijan. With BBQ-koji, you make delicious stir-fry with onions, carrots, and other vegetables. Garlic-koji and BBQ-koji are easy starters for first timers because they can easily imagine flavours. `This will grab your heart!` is always my sales phrase for these two products.
One last special product is Tamari-koji. You can think of it as a gluten free version of Shoyu-koji. I want everyone to enjoy koji and be inclusive of all dietary needs, so I made this after receiving a request from a gluten free customer.”
V: What is your favorite recipe using koji?
T: “I get asked this question a lot, and it's hard to narrow it down to just one! What I definitely want you to try is to use koji on your vegetables. You can add umami to simple vegetables. With koji, you can eat a lot more vegetables, and I would recommend families with children who do not like vegetables to try it. You can always substitute salt with koji when making dressings, sauces or marinate chicken or other proteins for at least 5-6 hours to make it tender like ham. Marinating salmon in Shoyu-koji, ginger, and maple syrup for 3 days is also excellent. The only thing you need to be careful with is potatoes. The enzyme breaks down the starch, so it is not suitable for dishes like potato salad that are marinated for a long time. The potatoes will dissolve like potage.”
V: What do you keep in mind when creating your products?
T: “I don't want to sell anything unless it is useful. I always ask myself if it is something that I want to buy and want myself, even if it takes a lot of work.”
V: Any new products in the horizon?
T: “This year, I start to offer a seasonal tsukudani series exclusively at farmers' markets. It will be seasonal flavours such as butterbur and shiso, which are harvested in my garden. Tsukudani goes well not only with rice and rice balls, but also with steak and yudofu(hot tofu). Some of our customers use it as a spread on avocado toast or mix it with peanut butter and a little water to make a sauce for Vietnamese spring rolls.
Also a new addition is my handmade miso, which is unpasteurized miso with organic Canadian soybeans and has been fermented for a year. It is available for purchase at the markets, and I plan to start selling it wholesale at the end of this year.”
V: Where can we find Vankoji products?
T: “You can find me at many of the farmers markets during the summer. I will be at Trout Lake, Mt Pleasant, Kitsilano, downtown, False Creek, White Rock, Coquitlam, Squamish, and maybe more! I really enjoy the markets because it is a place where I can talk directly to the customers and exchange interesting recipes and information. I will be participating in BC’s first Gourmet Arts Festival in Prince Geroge in June.
Other than that, you can purchase online or at local grocery stores such as Konbiniya, Sakuraya, SuzuYa in Burnaby, Kanadell Japanese bakery, Greens Organic & Natural Market on West Broadway, and Pomme Natural Market in Coquitlam”
V: What does food mean to you?
T: “Eating good food means a long-lasting health and wellness in the future, even if I have to spend a little more money on it. And I would like to promote Japanese culture through koji. Koji is uniquely Japanese, but it is also versatile and global for many people to enjoy.”