Bay Area couple get creative with ‘koji’


A star ingredient that appears in restaurants throughout the Bay Area is koji. It’s a microbe in misos, soy sauces and salts made by local artisans, who have adopted traditional fermentation methods deeply rooted in Japan, Korea and China.

Shared Cultures, founded by Eleana Hsu and Kevin Gondo in San Francisco, is a local company that seems capable of fermenting everything: wild foraged leeks, morels and cashews, in addition to traditional soybeans.

In this episode of the Extra Spicy podcast, host and restaurant critic Soleil Ho explains to Hsu and Gondo why they started their business, as well as the many crazy adventures in the world of mold and fermentation.

Extra spicy is:
Hosted by Soleil Ho
Produced by Téa Francesca Price and Caron Creighton
Executive Producer: Sarah Feldberg

Listen to the episode by clicking on the player above, or wherever you get your podcasts. Scroll down to read the transcript of an excerpt from Soleil Ho’s conversation with Eleana Hsu and Keven Gondo, edited and shortened for clarity:

SOLEIL: I think what really struck me about your products is how much it freaks me out just to know that you can ferment all that stuff and you can do all that stuff, it’s amazing. I had no idea. Most people make miso a kind of stick with soybeans. What was the kind of impulse to break this kind of oh, this kind of cultural moray eel?

Kevin: The way we think about our products, you know, we get a lot of our inspiration, obviously, from Northern California, but we kind of try to create products that embody the perspective of LA And we’re all two asian- american. Eleane is Chinese-American. I am Japanese-American. We grew up not eating the most traditional food from our cultural background. And so, you know, give non-traditional ingredients like peanut squash or cashews. And for me, that’s something we’re passionate about because it’s almost like we’re creating parts of ourselves and sharing them with our products.

Eleana: And just to touch on that, I mean, a big part of it, too, is, you know, you think about all these traditional foods that have been around for four centuries. And it’s amazing because when you break it down to a scientific level, basically, Koji is a fungus that produces enzymes. They don’t have a mouth. And so the way they break down food is they secrete these enzymes. So the way we look at everything as a whole is when we’re at farmers’ markets or when we’re trying to think of things to, you know, create or recreate or be imaginative. We think, you know, mushrooms have protein, squash has starch. Corn contains starch. So we’re just trying to break those things down and translate them into an ingredient that most people haven’t tried. And I think that’s what’s really exciting because the flavor combinations are really endless.

Kevin: We definitely improve every batch we make or show you. But, you know, interestingly, a lot of fermentation techniques aren’t really published in an easily accessible way, especially if you don’t speak Japanese or Chinese. And so really trying to find out or translate the information has been difficult. But much of what we have done today is due to this community that is already established in Koji and fermentation.. they kind of demystified a lot of this information around Koji. And so it’s resources like that that really set a foundation for us.

For the full episode, listen to the interview by clicking the player above or subscribing to Extra Spicy wherever you get your podcasts.

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