An Interview with Anna Sugiyama of Yoka Miso

An Interview with Anna Sugiyama of Yoka Miso

Anna Sugiyama is the owner of Yoka Miso, a Seattle based artisanal maker of traditional miso.  She took her father’s recipe and decided to share it with the world. Anna oversees everything about Yoka Miso and enjoys the farm to table business process.  They currently offer a traditional miso and an aka (red) miso. 

How did you start Yoka Miso?

To understand the origins of anything, you have to go back. But when you begin to look back it’s difficult to know when to stop looking and to start telling. We’ve decided to start our story in 1990, when Shoichi Sugiyama made the decision to learn how to make miso by enrolling in a small, locally-taught class in Fukuoka, Japan. However, we could easily go back further: to how he learned to cook in the 1970s as a firefighter, on nights when his crew would make dinner together, or to his own family’s meals and traditions. Origins aren’t always clear.

In 1990, Shoichi was living in Iizuka, Japan and began to make his own miso. There were ups and downs and some batches turned out better than others, but he was progressively getting better. During this time Shoichi had two daughters, Anna and Maia. The two girls grew up chasing frogs, riding bikes, and playing hard in the countryside of Iizuka (Their home and surrounding neighborhood looked like it came straight out of My Neighbor Totoro). Anna remembers some nights that her dad, Shoichi, would go out and catch fireflies in jars so that she’d have a soft night light, and then once she’d fallen asleep he’d release them back outside.

Fast forward to 2001, and Ichiro Suzuki is the greatest baseball player ever playing on the greatest baseball team to ever play (The 2001 Seattle Mariners) and the Sugiyamas have been living in Seattle for two years.

Double time fast forward.

Anna Sugiyama is in her early 20s and an English student at the University of Washington. Her friends and her have developed a deep love for food and cooking, and begin to regularly explore new restaurants, prepare large dinners, and holistically grow their culinary skills. She begins to learn about farm to table, ‘buy local’ movements, foraging, and low waste life styles, etc. Meanwhile, Shoichi has worked as a professional woodworker for years and is the premier Mochitsuki master in the Pacific Northwest. At this point, the miso he’s making has only been for friends and family.

That’s when it happens!
The light bulb clicks!

A friend coming to pick up miso says something like, “Ahh, thank you! Your miso is so good. It’s our absolute favorite.”

Anna looks to see if there are any miso companies in Seattle - none.

There’s both a problem and a solution.
Problem: No supply of quality, locally made, small batch miso.
Solution: Yoka Miso.

Initially to be titled Yoi Miso (Translates to “Good Miso”), the Sugiyama’s decided on Yoka Miso because Yoka is the more colloquial way of saying Yoi in their own region of Japan. Yoka Miso, as a title, is simple but very intentional. The Sugiyama’s are incredibly proud to be providing the best quality miso (good), and to be a company that’s focused on the local community (yoka).

What has brought you into the world of food?

Food has been a huge part of my life since childhood. My parents used to forage for food in Japan as a hobby while one of them wore me on their back. We rented an old traditional farmhouse surrounded by rice fields. The farmers in the area used to wonder why these city folks would be out there doing this when the food was readily available in the shops. I mean why forage when you don’t have to? It was the WWII mentality. But then after a while, some of the farmers would show my mom or dad some secret place for wild potato or parsley. Kiwis, peaches, and strawberries used to just show up on the doorstep. Once someone left a hunted duck. I wonder if they were proud to see that my parents thought it was nothing to be ashamed. Since childhood in Japan and the United States we—and I say we—always cooked homemade food and bought or foraged locally when possible. It wasn’t until I got to high school that I realized not everyone did this as a family. And then when I went to college it was a “thing” to go forage. So I started doing it with friends, and it’s accessible to almost anyone—and I’ve never had a bad day foraging.

Anna's father, Shoichi
Anna and her dog

What does kinship in the context of food mean to you? How has food served as a connector for you? 

Food is grounding and there’s no pun intended. One of my favorite and most comforting places to be is the grocery store. Even when I was a kid. I knew where everything was, and it was like an extension of home—one gigantic pantry—you could take what you needed and bring it home. We knew all the clerks. We still do. Aside from language, food connects me to my heritage, which I have fortunately been able to explore through extensive travel abroad. I am both Japanese and American, and so I have had direct access to more than one culture all of my life.

In the past six years, I was able to explore my European roots by living in Italy and traveling to Germany. Although the time spent there was for university studies, and not about the food, it became about the food because I can’t seem to tear myself away from it. I no longer consider travel without food, because they truly go hand in hand—and they should. I love to discover old ways of preparing food. I just hope that these ways don’t die. This is one reason why I love my business. It keeps the tradition alive. My dad does this with mochi. Many people don’t know how or why it is prepared anymore. We need to preserve culture in the same way we preserve food; I mean if we stop, it stops—and that’s heartbreaking.

Anna and her first set of orders in June 2021

What is your favorite fruit and/or vegetable? And/or ideal meal?

Oranges and mikans (specifically Satsumas). When they’re in season they are super refreshing and juicy. We associate them with the fall and new year—an orange surprise to brighten up the gray skies. My sister and I are known among friends to always have a few in our backpacks at any given point in time and we give them away like candy. At home we horde them—ten boxes at a time when they go on sale. Our consumption is crazy. I mean we’ll go through a giant pile in one day. Mikans among other fruits are one of the crown jewels of the winter harvest. Even my American relatives have been stuffing them in stockings for Christmas for generations.

I also love a good salad. There is always something in my garden that’s fresh—even if it’s just a handful of herbs in the dead of winter. You can taste the difference. But more importantly, you grew it yourself, and who can beat that kind of quality?

Do you have a simple recipe you'd like to share? 

Honey Miso Drizzle Recipe

I usually start my day with a traditional Japanese breakfast, and that of course involves miso soup. However, sometimes I don’t have time for that, and I get my miso into my gut by way of honey over toast or biscuits. It is so good--drizzled over a fried egg with a slice of avocado on an English muffin—it’s amazing. You can also serve it drizzled over cheese for a savory & sweet compliment. It pairs well with feta or brie. I get the honey close to home from my friend, TJ Main who owns Cascade Natural Honey in Bellevue. Natural honey makes a huge difference.

Mix 3 tablespoons of natural local honey and 1.5 tablespoons of Yoka Miso.

Mix well at room temperature and add more or less to taste. This will keep on the shelf.

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