Making It: Mariko Grady and the Gentle Art of Koji

The craft food revolution has given us an amazing array of pickles, jams, beers, and sweets to gush over, but what about the people who make them? Turning a passion for barrel-aged Sriracha or Blenheim apricot preserves into a viable business is a struggle; only the most committed makers, the ones with vision, grit, and stamina, can hope to survive. Here’s one we’re betting on.

When the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in March 2011, Mariko Grady (above, with San Francisco chef Dennis Lee) felt horrified and helpless. She was a part-time theater performer and a full-time mom, determined to get money to Japan (she left it a decade earlier and moved to San Francisco). Really, all Mariko thought she could do was make miso—she was already doing that in her own kitchen, as gifts for family and friends, using the fungus known in Japan as koji (Aspergillus oryzae). It’s the same mold that turns rice into sake.

Mariko’s fundraiser helped more than Japan: It convinced her of the market potential for locally made miso and other fermented products. She’d need a commercial kitchen—a friend told her about La Cocina, the San Francisco nonprofit that helps women food entrepreneurs. She’s been in the incubator program since 2012.

Her one-woman company, Aedan Fermented Foods, makes a dozen products that mostly spring from Mariko’s beautifully white, fluffy-looking rice koji (above). There’s enzyme-rich, gently salty shio koji; amazake, which is sweet and looks like rice pudding; four primary types of miso, including one made from chickpeas (her miso soup, below, is the best we've tasted); and a brew-it-yourself sake kit, with rice, koji, and liquid yeast Mariko makes from organic raisins. She also makes natto, the stringy fermented soybeans that are pretty much an acquired taste (and texture).

Mariko wants her own shop someday; right now she sells at a farmers' market in San Francisco and via the grocery delivery service Good Eggs. Until she goes from breakout maker to the big time, chefs might be Aedan’s best ambassadors—Mariko's customers are some of San Francisco’s most interesting restaurants, including Namu Gaji. Namu’s Dennis Lee is a fan of Mariko’s natto. Namu's cooks dehydrate it to produce a powder to spoon onto Wagyu beef tartare (powdered natto also flavors the crisp, chicharrónlike tapioca crisps the tartare sits on), with puréed black garlic, frothy egg white, and cooked, sieved yolk. “It’s a good way to introduce people to natto, who might not be into the texture,” Lee says.

The fact that it’s made less than a mile and a half distant, by a woman who learned how to make it half a world away, only makes it sweeter.

Photos, styling, and animated GIF by Chris Rochelle