NOT many adverts for a tofu-making machine find their way onto Done Deal. Even less that such a machine happens to be in Cork, where partners Méabh Mooney and Ronan Forde were discussing starting their own food business, OTOFU.
It’s the kind of crazy alignment of opportunity, timing and idea that is rare indeed.
Méabh, originally from Listowel, Co Kerry, had a successful career as a fashion designer and buyer who spent most of her professional life in Australia and Asia.
Ronan, from Shannon, Co Clare, has worked in the artisan food industry most of his career, moving to Kilbrittain eight years ago.
The pair met in Dublin and had a long-distance relationship when Méabh decided to move to Kilbrittain ahead of the arrival of their first son, Oisin, three years ago, which ultimately nudged Méabh to leave her fashion career behind.
“My passion really wasn’t fashion; food has been the go-to at any time in my life - cooking was always a comfort,” says Méabh, busy cradling her newborn son, Culann, because that’s what juggling a new business and two children under four requires.
Both Méabh and Ronan travelled extensively around Asia: Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea and Shanghai, where Méabh lived for three years.
“We’d travel and taste street food; I guess you could say we are real lovers of authentic Asian food,” she says.
While in Australia, a flat-mate introduced Méabh to tofu and ever since it has formed an important and delicious part of her diet. Fast forward to 2020 and lockdown; Méabh was at a professional crossroads.
“When I moved to Kilbrittain, I thought I could commute to Dublin, but the reality of the whole thing was too much, so I resigned.
“I was in the process of becoming a substitute teacher; I felt I had three options: do teaching, go back into fashion, or start a business.”
Meanwhile, Méabh and Ronan, both enthusiastic home cooks, noticed there was no Irish-made tofu.
“Ronan has always wanted to work for himself and start a food business of some sort, but I wasn’t interested if they involved animals. Then I saw a tofu maker for sale on Done Deal in Cork and we bought it!”
Méabh had to decide then what path to focus on – she chose tofu and OTOFU was born.
OTOFU started as an idea in 2020 but didn’t become a fully-fledged business until October, 2021, after securing a production unit close to home. It hasn’t even been a year, but it seems the time is right for Irish made tofu as the reception has been better than anticipated.
“People have been so positive, and we’ve been surprised by the amount of people who have said, finally, someone making tofu in Ireland!”
Tofu is an ancient food; it has been part of food culture for 2,000 years. In Ireland, consumption is still relatively low, but times are changing. More people are looking to eat less meat and see tofu as an excellent protein supplement. But there is a lack of understanding about how it is made, as well as concerns about where soybeans, the primary ingredient in tofu, come from.
“Tofu is made of soybeans, water, and nigari. Nigari is a by-product of sea salt making and is a coagulant. First, we make soymilk, then add nigari and this separates the soy milk into, essentially, curds and a whey-type by-product called okara. The curds are poured into moulds, pressed, and cooled.”
It has similarities to cheesemaking, and as Ronan worked for many years with Toons Bridge Dairy, it’s no surprise he has easily turned his hand to tofu-making, while Méabh takes care of management and operations.
The okara is a waste product, although there are plans to change that in the future, but for now it is fed into the local biodigester - or to pigs - which is kind of the same thing.
“Tofu has been around forever; that is why I love it. My favourite saying is: ‘The future has an ancient heart.’ I came across it when I was travelling through Jordan on my way home from Australia; this idea that so many of the solutions to the world’s problems can be found in the past.”
In many ways, OTOFU is tapping into an ancient past and using what is known to make it in a way that has a minimal impact to safeguard the future by sourcing organic non-GMO European grown soybeans.
“I worked in high-end fashion for years, and I became so aware of its environmental consequences by the end,” says Meabh, “It made me determined that, if I was going into business, it needed to be as part of the solution as possible.
“I’m one of those people that believes we don’t need more stuff in the world, so if we were going to put more stuff out in the world it needed to be on the right side.”
There are three flavours of OTOFU: Korean Chilli is highly flavoured with ingredient of the moment gochujang and plays on the couple’s love of Korean food. Miso Sesame is what Méabh describes as their “crowd-pleaser” flavour with a big hit of umami. Plain allows for people to play around with adding their own flavours. A firm tofu, it allows for versatile preparation from frying, steaming, and poaching to grating and scrambling.
There are plans to develop a silken tofu, a smoked tofu, and also to explore the many uses of okara from biscuits to soy-sages. For now, focus is on the three flavours of the core range as OTOFU becomes one of the latest food producers to graduate the SuperValu Food Academy.
“The benefit we’ve got from the academy is great; the amount of learning and the energy that goes into it,” says Méabh.
“I guess I am now considered a businesswoman, and I’ve really enjoyed the journey. I’m engaging my brain in a way I’ve never done before.
"Growing up in school, I always dismissed business because I thought it was just men in suits - boring. There’s also the element of you can’t see it, you can’t be it, so I never considered business would be something for me ever.
“But now I really enjoy numbers, ticking things off lists, being more methodical. After years of working in the creative industry, where there’s never a right answer and it’s always open to the ether, now I do enjoy things that are concrete!”
Méabh says balancing and managing her own time is a key challenge when working for herself and raising a young family.
“In fact, [time] is so hard to manage because I’m always at home and never really switch off. I’m so engaged, and when it’s your own business, all of you is committed and interested. But then, I am always here and available to for them, and that is good.”
OTOFU is currently available in five SuperValu stores in west and north Cork, as well as independent stockists in Cork city and west Cork. Check out the website for the full list of stockists, www.otofu.ie, and follow them on Instagram @OTOFU.