Cult-favourite tofu shop moves to West Melbourne
When Tofu Shoten first opened as a tiny pop-up counter in a Brunswick café last year, word quickly spread that some of the freshest tofu in Victoria was being handmade on site.
For three days a week, lines of people crowded the entrance and bought up the small batches of tofu, soy milk, and other Japanese snacks within a few hours.
Owner and tofu-maker Sava Goto had no idea her business was going to be so popular.
“I didn’t expect it at all,” Ms Goto told North West City News.
“My image of a tofu shop in Japan is more like a relaxed vibe. Queuing in front of the shop is not really a common situation.”
She put her shop’s success down to the prevalence of veganism in Melbourne, and the short supply of locally made tofu.
“I had many types of tofu, which people hadn’t seen before,” she said.
When Ms Goto came to Australia from Japan in 2015, she noticed a variety of tofu from China and South Asia in supermarkets, but none that tasted like home. Different climates call for different coagulants, which create distinct flavours and textures in tofu.
This inspired her to learn how to make soft Japanese tofu from scratch.
Growing up on her grandparents’ farm, she saw how they propagated soybeans. Ms Goto later worked in cafes in Japan and Melbourne but had no experience actually making tofu.
“Tofu is such a labour-intensive thing, so usually no one makes it at home unless you’re like really, really countryside,” she laughed.
Loyal, sometimes fanatic, customers in Melbourne appreciated her labour of love.
Then, just as quickly as it kicked off, Tofu Shoten disappeared.
“At the end of Hope St, I was pretty much burning out because of the long hours,” Ms Goto said. “Many people coming to the shop was a great thing, but maybe I took it as pressure, so I pushed myself too far.”
After no word for nearly a year, an Instagram post in May announced that Tofu Shoten was relocating to West Melbourne.
Doors officially opened to the small, brightly-lit shop front this weekend—and customers lined up once again.
Though the space is markedly bigger this time, Tofu Shoten’s trading style remains simple: a counter and a fridge full of takeaway soy milk and tofu of the silken, semi-firm and smoked variety.
Ms Goto and her shopkeeper Bill are bringing back their signature tofu balls, chilli oil, kinako (roasted soybean powder), sauces, spreads and kuzu mochi, a starchy summer dessert with dark sugar syrup and kinako on top.
They also plan to convert previous weekend specials into regular menu items, including biscuit sandwiches filled with roasted sweet potato, vanilla cream and red bean paste.
“Daily capacity won’t change much, I think, but still I want to keep it sustainable,” she said.
With Tofu Shoten now open four days a week, Ms Goto has new strategies in place to avoid another burnout as the sole tofu-maker in the business.
“Squeezing soy milk was the hard thing and all my joints got really bad, so it [was] not sustainable. I’ve got equipment to do that for me. It’s going to be the same process, but not so much stress on me.”
Environmental sustainability is also a top priority, and Ms Goto has been creating new recipes to get the most out of soy by-products.
“There’s so much waste going into the bin usually, so I’m trying to reduce waste as well,” she said. “For me, that’s the fun part.”
With no plans to expand, Ms Goto wants her small shop to be a place where she can share her tofu knowledge with the community.
She also hopes Tofu Shoten’s success in Melbourne will “cheer up” the traditional tofu shops in Japan that are closing in greater numbers.
“Small businesses can’t beat the cheap – but still good quality – tofu from the factories, so they have to close down,” she said.
“But it’s a traditional craftmanship for me, and I want to keep the tradition even though I’m overseas.”
Tofu Shoten is located at 185 Victoria St, West Melbourne and open Thursday to Sunday 11am to 4pm.