Greetings, Sosu nation!
I hope everyone is enjoying their summer! It’s been a busy past couple of months for us here at Sosu, but we’re anxious to getting started on our production, which begins this week! For our 2014 season, we’re actually switching some things up. Check out what's been going on with us. Full Story-->
Greetings, Saucy fans!
Sosu Sauces and Sprouts Cooking Club recently got together for an awesome event at Whole Foods Market in Oakland! These young and talented cooks worked in teams to make their very own ketchup and fried rice. They chose from a wide variety of ingredients and although each dish was delicious, one team stood out from the rest and won this wonderful cook off! Full Story-->View full article →
Dear Sosu Fans,
We are back on the farm!
This year we are working with two farmers in the Salinas Valley/Holllister region and two farmers in the Clarksburg region in Northern California to grow tomatoes and chili peppers for our delicious Srirachup and Barrel-Aged Sriracha sauces.
The direct relationship with our farmers is very important to us. The freshness that you taste from our sauces is a result of the partnership. We work hand-in-hand with them during the growing and harvest season to hand-pick the produce when it’s fresh and at the peak of the season.
Many people ask me, because you source from different regions and farms, does the tomatoes or chili peppers in your sauce taste different each year? And I tell them, YES! Absolutely! The base flavors of our sauces are the same, but we welcome the differences and nuisances of the flavors in the tomatoes and chili peppers depending on the “terroir” or region it is grown and depending on the weather for that year.
Here are some "saucy" notes from the 2014 growing season!
2014 Farming Season
Salinas Valley/Hollister, CA
The Salinas Valley/Hollister region has been instrumental to our growth in past seasons. Located about 100 miles south of San Francisco, the area is known for it’s hot summers and cool nights. The variation in temperature produces some of the best tomatoes and chilies in California.
We’re excited to continue our relationship with our farmer in Salinas Valley from last season and because of you and your overwhelming support, we're thrilled to team up with another farmer in the region.
Both farmers are graduates of ALBA (Agriculture & Land-Based Learning Association), an in-class and hands-on farm training program that teaches farmers the necessary skills to become an organic farmer. This is important to us because of how rigorous the program is and also the emphasis on organic farming and taking care of the land.
Farming Notes from Salinas Valley:
Type: Early Girl tomatoes, a sweet and juicy tomato. Fresh and clean flavors. Fresno and jalapeño peppers.
Soil: Sandy soil.
Climate: Hot summers (goes up to 110 degrees) and cool nights. The variation in temperature also creates more flavor for tomatoes because of the difference.
Growing season: Transplanting starts now in Mid-May and continues to June. Plants are ready to be harvested in July/August.
Yield: Did you know average yield per tomato plant ranges from 10-20 lbs of tomatoes.
(The land in Clarksburg, CA)
(Peppers growing in the green house before transplanting)
(Peppers ready to be transplanted in the ground)
(The tractor + machinery that is used to plant the peppers in the ground)
(Hand planting one by one)
(The machine has two wheels that enclose the soil after the plant is placed in the ground)
(Rich and nutrient soil of Clarksburg, CA - Sacramento Delta)
(A fresno pepper plant)
(On the tractor with our farmer, ready for planting!)
This is our first year growing in the Clarksburg region. Up about 80 miles northeast of San Francisco, Clarksburg is the lesser known “wine country” but produces some of the best grapes for wine making. The same climate works great for peppers, as the hot summer days and cool nights create variations that adds to the flavor of a pepper. The area is surrounded by the Sacramento delta, which makes the soil rich and full of nutrients. (It’s so rich, it’s black!)
We are excited to be working with two farmers in the Clarksburg area to grow our chili peppers for Srirachup and Barrel-Aged Sriracha.
Farming Notes from Clarksburg, CA:
Pepper Types: Jalapeno and Fresno chili peppers
Soil: “Sacramento Clay” Rich, dark soil with lots of nutrients from delta.
Climate: Because it is strategically near Sacramento River, cool weather but hot summers.
Growing Season: Transplanting starts now in Mid-May and continues to June for warmer weather. Plants ready to be harvested in August/September when they turn red.
Yield: Did you know one plant of peppers only yields about 1 lb of peppers? It’s a lot of hard work.
Sosu's Own Farm Project - Oakland, CA
This year, we also started our own small farm on a 30x30 inch plot of land in Oakland at the Lake Merritt Gardens. We are sharing the plot with CHAA (Community Health for Asian Americans), and on the small plot of land, we are growing various tomatoes and chili peppers. The purpose of the plot is for us to experiment with different varieties of tomatoes and peppers but also share our bounty with our neighbors and educate community about different kinds of produce we can grow. Stay tuned, we might have enough tomatoes and chili peppers to make 1 estate-grown bottle of ketchup or Barrel-Aged Sriracha!
(Sosu's mini farm project - tomatoes and chili peppers)
(Getting the soil ready for planting)
(Harvesting potatoes from the garden)
(Tsering - CHAA and myself)
(Sosu and CHAA)
If there’s one thing I have learned about farming it’s not easy work. But the farmers do it because they love what they do, and it’s rewarding for them when someone taste their hard work and love the flavors of the produce. This is also the same exact reason why I am proud to work with them, so I can share their bounty with you in your cooking and dinners through our sauces.
If you have thoughts or feedback, please share with us below.
It was exactly one year ago, I packed my bags and left San Francisco for Siem Reap, Cambodia to teach English for a month. On my first day, it was the start of the Cambodian New Year. Some businesses were closed and school was out for a week. As a Chinese who celebrated the Chinese New Year every year, the Cambodian New Year was something new to me.
Cambodian or Khmer New Year is celebrated from April 13th – 15th of every year and generally follows at the end of a rice harvest season. A majority of Cambodians are rice farmers and they work particularly hard during the rice season to produce their crops for the year. The 3-day celebration is a way for families to come together with relatives and celebrate the bounty of the harvest before the start of the rain season. When I was there, many families were busy crowding the fresh markets, buying ingredients to prepare meals at home. Children and adults were dressed up in their elegant Cambodian clothing to celebrate the new year. Younger generations went to temples and danced traditional Cambodian dances & hip hop as a way to celebrate.
This past weekend, I attended the Khmer New Year celebration at the local Cambodian temple in Oakland with my friend, Peter, whose family comes from Phnom Pehn, Cambodia. For U.S. based Cambodians, the tradition is to visit temples during the new year and offer prayers and thanks for a good year past and a good year ahead.
Of course, it’s not complete without traditional Khmer food. The temple’s tradition is for every family to cook a few dishes and they lay it out on the tables for everyone to share. The monks of the temple are offered the food first and then everyone else can join afterwards, as a respect to the monks. The food included mango sticky rice, curries, salty fish wrapped with cabbage, papaya salads, and green mango with chili and many more. We all ate together and I was very grateful that they included me in the family celebration.
Happy Khmer new year everyone!
Sambal Oelek is a popular Southeast Asian chili paste sauce usually made with chili peppers, fish sauce, garlic, sugar, and lime juice. Unlike sriracha sauce, sambal oelek is generally thicker in consistency and therefore has different uses than sriracha.
In many parts of Southeast Asia, even in China, there are different variations of this chili paste. For example, in China, we have what we call a “chili garlic” paste. Northerners in China usually use this “sambal oelek” for dumplings mixed with ChinKiang vinegar. Other parts of Southeast Asia use shrimp paste, ginger, and/or shallots to give this sauce a pungent and umami flavor. The sauce is traditionally made with a mortar to grind up the chili peppers and mix with the ingredients, however home cooks can also use a food blender to make the sauce.
"Sambal" is a Malay loan-word from Javanese origins.
Last spring, before diving full-time into Sosu, I spent a month in Cambodia teaching English in a rural village just 30 km outside of Siem Reap. It was one of the most rewarding experiences for me. I was also lucky to be able to live in the village and learned quite a few sauces from the teachers and the host family that I stayed with.
Everyday between 11am – 1pm would be the “teachers” lunch break where we each cooked for each other. The dishes we cooked were simple and consisted of no more than 1-2 dishes with a fruit dish as dessert (I ate a lot of mangoes since it was mango season and the kids would give mangoes to teachers as a “thank you” present!)
One day, my friends and teachers made a sauce to go with a traditional chicken dish to celebrate my joining of the program. (In Cambodia, chicken is a delicacy and only eaten when there’s a special occasion) The sauce was made with a lot of garlic, chili peppers, lime juice and fish sauce. I asked what it is and they said it was a chili paste. I remember thinking it looked a lot like the Sambal Oelek that I have seen in the Asian supermarkets and only later did I realize it was Cambodian’s version of Sambal Oelek.
In Cambodia, the flavors tend to be a little sweeter as sugar is often used for cooking but also as a topper for noodle soups (you will commonly find sugars around tables in noodle restaurants). This version of the Sambal was a nice sweet, lime-based paste with light flavors of fish sauce and chilies. Paired together with the chicken dish, it was a delicious sweet, tangy and spicy combination.
(Teachers and I)
(Garlic and chili peppers are lightly roasted)
(The garlic and chili peppers are moved into a mortar and pounded to get a smoother texture)
(From left to right. Lots of lime juice is squeeze into the mix. Fish sauce is added to the mix. Sugar is added. And last step, it is diluted with warm water to give it more of a sauce consistency)
So taking this method as an inspiration, I wanted to make a better version of Sambal Oelek with no additives and preservatives. I also wanted to re-use the delicious and pungently fermented pepper seeds and skins from our barrel-aged sriracha mash. I knew the fermented pepper seeds and skins would carry a lot of flavor that would balance quite well with the rest of the ingredients of the sauce.
We kept our ingredients simple and true to the sauce – fermented sriracha mash, lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, and lots of garlic. The result is a flavorful, spicy, and umami chili paste that is very delicious.
We can’t wait to share this new sauce with our Kickstarter supporters and also with all of you when it is ready in Fall of this year! Recipes to follow in the next blog post, check back again!
Dear Saucy fans,
We ended our 2013 ketchup production season just a week ago. As Thanksgiving lurks around the corner, I wanted to take this time to tell you what we have been working on in the past few weeks and months, in our first big(ger) production season that we are very proud of.
|# of tomatoes processed: ~11,000 lbs or 5.5 tons
|Bottles made: ~7,000
|Bottles made: ~500 bottles
|# of golden jubilee tomatoes: ~1,000
|# of early girl tomatoes: ~10,000
2013 YEAR OF FIRSTS. Early in the year, we started contract growing with 2 local farmers - Frog Hollow Farms and Avalos Organic Farms in the bay area for our tomatoes and peppers, 50,000 lbs of tomatoes, and 10,000 lbs of peppers. We upgraded from our 3 gallon sauce pans we used in a shared commissary kitchen last year, to 2 commercial 30 gallon braisers that we used on our tomato farmer’s commercial kitchen. We hired staff and workers in the local area to help us with production (vs. having our friends work for us on Labor Day ;)) We used a semi-automatic filler machine to help us fill all the jars. And with all of the firsts this year, I am happy and proud to say that we were able to scale our production from 2,000 jars to ~7,500 jars, and with no comprise to quality.
This year, we worked out an arrangement with our tomato farmer to be able to process the tomatoes in their commercial kitchen, which is located on their farm. This way, it ensured the time it took from picking to processing was minimal and we could use the freshiest tomatoes picked off the vine. When the tomatoes are picked, we implemented a mini assembly line to hand-sort all the tomatoes to make sure only the ripe and good tomatoes were used in the ketchups. The tomatoes are cleaned in 2 water baths and then the tomato water is hand-pressed out for the pulp to go into our ketchups. It’s quite a process from start to finish to make ketchup. It takes us an average of about 2 hours to make one batch of about ~100 bottles of ketchup. Because we don’t use any thickeners, we slowly let time to naturally reduce the tomatoes down to a thick consistency. We find this to be the best way to concentrate all the flavors of the tomatoes into our ketchup. Each jar of ketchup is hand-closed, and hand-labeled. We taste each batch to make sure the flavors are good.
LEARNINGS. One of the biggest challenges this year for us was the supply of our tomatoes and peppers. This season, we only worked with one farmer for our tomatoes and one for our peppers and both of them had a very late planting and therefore a late harvest. Because of the late harvest, we were only able to get about 15-20% of our initial tomato and pepper volume and unfortunately this led us to having to cancel some of the orders with Whole Foods. We also had to push back one of our flavors, Thaichup, because of the orange tomato shortage. But I think things happen for a good reason and this shortage has allowed me to focus more time on local accounts that we have signed up, to support them to make sure they do well. And for me to concentrate on making 2 products very well. There will always be next year for Whole Foods and Thaichup.
We also dived into organic certification too early. Because we were organic, when it came to finding more vendors to work with for tomatoes, and peppers, we were limited to a very small group and very premium priced group. There were a few non-organic farmers that don’t spray and don’t use pesticides (yes, organic farmers could also spray pesticides, they are organic but still pesticides) of whom I wanted to work with, but couldn’t because of our certification. We did find 2 organic farmers – in Brentwood and in Pescadero who supplied us awesome and amazing early girl tomatoes. During this whole process, I talked to about 30 farmers in the bay area and visited another 5 farmers on their farm to learn about their farming practices. I am very excited to continue our conversation and look forward to working with these great farmers next year for our 2014 season. Something is telling me we will have an abundance of supply next year…
Now that we have made the ketchups, you will be seeing us a lot at local stores doing demos and samplings. Follow us on our website for events and please come say hello next time you will be near us. It’s always great to meet you all and thank you personally for the support. Making ketchup is a labor of love and we couldn’t have done it without your generous and fanatical support.
I hope you enjoy our ketchups from the 2013 season. It’s from me to you.
(Breaking ground on our acre of land for tomato growing)
(Our 1st year celebration - farm dinner with our friends)
(A lot of tomatoes to process, ~1500 lbs)
(Tomatoes being hand-carted away into production room)
(Chili peppers for Srirachup)
(The ketchups are hand-mixed and never left unattended)
(Odd shapes we found during sorting)
(The ladies behind our ketchups)
(I love when ketchups are made and when we roll them out… it's like finishing a surgery and you are rolling out the patient)
(Our first pallet of ketchup, building in progress… Xiao you look handsome)
(End of production celebration at Golden Dragon Buffet with the ladies)
Cheers to 2014 season ahead!
When we commit to using fresh ingredients for our sauces, we also become closely tied to mother-nature and whatever mother-nature gives us. This has been our first year contract growing and it’s been turning out to be a slow harvest but a fast learning experience for us.
This year, we set-out to grow 50,000 lbs of tomatoes for our ketchups. However, a late planting of the tomatoes has led to a slow harvest year for us. And as the weather gets chillier in the bay area, the tomatoes are growing slower and we are getting farther away from our 50,000 goal. Last week, I started my quest to look for more tomatoes and started reaching out to 30+ farmers in the SF bay area, San Joaquin valley, Yolo/Sacramento County, Petaluma, and beyond. I even talked to my roommate’s brother-in-law in S. Ontario, Canada, where many of the large farms there contract grow for Heinz (although he does not).
What I have found is that there is no longer a middle-sized farmer who is able to support the medium-range volumes of a producer like me who is looking for 50K -100K lbs. What I have seen is the middle-farmer has been squeezed out by the guys at the top who gets the millions in volume at a low margin. There are also an over-abundance of small-farmers with <20 acres who directly sells to fresh markets aka farmer’s markets. At these markets, they can command a premium price for the heirloom and fresh market varieties of tomatoes at 2 or $3 a lb, but for someone like me who is using 2 lbs of tomatoes per jar of my ketchup, it is just not sustainable or affordable. As one of the farmers from Terra Firma farms in Yolo County says, there is an overcrowding of small farmers who sell to fresh markets. There’s not enough middle-sized farmers who can support an in-between volume that artisans and producers need. And I am not alone in this picture, many small to medium sized organic product companies are also having the same issue, they can’t work with a small farmer because the price is not right and they can’t work with a large tomato processor because they don’t require the volume that they typically do. It’s a very interesting problem that is happening. Perhaps there is an opportunity to form a co-op or CSA like program where producers can aggregate together to buy larger volumes to make it worthwhile for medium size farmers?
And the increase in labor cost with the labor shortage in California is not helping with the cost either. This year, many farms are experiencing labor shortages, there’s just no one who can pick the tomatoes. Some farms are letting acres and acres of grown crops go to waste because they can’t find any labor to pick the crops. It’s a sad tragedy that is happening, food is going to waste when someone is really in need of it. I have started to question whether or not there is a technology or tool out there that can aid the picking of these crops without the giant harvester that come in and takes out the entire plant. And with a few more phone calls to UC Davis Ag and Engineering, I learned that robotics are one of the solutions but the technology is not quite there yet to be affordable. I also learned that in Europe where farms are smaller in scale compared to the U.S. they use a technique called prone which puts a laborer on his stomach and he lays on a mattress and gets pulled by a tractor through the crop fields as he picks. Perhaps the answer is an existing machine (like the harvester) but adapted with new technology to help with the increasingly pressing problem of the lack of labor?
After speaking with many farms in the area, I wouldn’t say I am an expert on the tomato crop situation but I have learned a lot. One thing that’s very interesting that my roommate’s brother-in-law, a 2nd generation farmer, told me is farming is no longer his main income. As a small-scale farmer with 200 acres of land, he no longer sees his farm as his main source of income, as much as he would have liked to. The income just doesn’t support him, he has a main job and the farm has become his retirement plan. He has thought about going into fresh markets and selling at a premium, however this would require marketing, which is not his strong suit. His specialty is farming. And with large-scale contract growing being dictated by large corporations of what to grow, what time to produce, and what time to deliver, it’s making it real hard for a farmer to be a farmer.
I believe with more and more artisan producers like me, there will be more demand for medium-sized farmers. I also believe one of the ways we can get affordable and quality food to people’s hands lies in these farmers. My goal is to find these farmers and develop these relationships so we can grow together to bring good quality food to everyone. In the meantime, we are waiting patiently for our tomatoes to turn red.