Obon’s Humiko Hozumi and Jason Duffany have come a long way. The two have watched their business grow steadily over the last seven years, from their vegan Japanese food business’s early days at farmers markets, where they had to explain onigiri to unfamiliar customers, to opening a stall within the food hall Morrison Market in February 2020. Next month, they’ll take another step forward: This July, Obon Shokudo will bid farewell to its Morrison Market stall and take over the former Kachinka space on SE Grand Avenue. The chefs broke the news on Instagram, announcing a new restaurant that will serve homestyle Japanese curry, house-made udon, and kenchinjiru stew, while ramping up the production of fermented goods.
Hozumi and Duffany want their new restaurant space to offer something distinct within Portland’s vegan and Japanese food scenes, providing meatless takes on Japanese comfort foods. “There are so many Japanese restaurants out there, but no one is doing vegan Japanese that is homestyle,” she says. For them, that means dishes like umeboshi (pickled plum) onigiri, curried kabocha squash korokke, panko-breaded Ota tofu katsu, and hearty kenchinjiru miso vegetable stew — made with seasonal ingredients and based on Hozumi’s family recipes.
“I learned to cook through personal experience. That’s my passion,” Hozumi says. “Our food is ... what your mom and grandma would cook at home.” The theme of family is carried through the Obon name and branding: the black and white logo depicts Hozumi’s family crest, and Obon is both a Japanese festival in mid-August that commemorates one’s ancestors, and the name for a wooden lacquered tray used for tea ceremonies and snacks.
Originally from the mountainous region of the Saitama Prefecture in Japan, Hozumi says Obon’s food is, for the most part, traditional to where she grew up. Like the Pacific Northwest, the region offers an abundance of mushrooms, and Hozumi’s family had a small vegetable farm that provided much of the fodder for meals. Her mother would make miso from scratch, and her father would make udon noodles by hand, which became the inspiration to the fresh and bouncy house-made udon served at Obon Shokudo today.
When the husband-wife team moved from San Francisco to Portland, they initially launched Obon as a catering business before exploring the possibility of selling tofu misozuke — miso-fermented tofu with a rich pate-like consistency — as a wholesale product. It wasn’t until Heman Bhojwani, the owner of local vegan and gluten-free distributor Earthly Gourmet, suggested they sell Japanese food that Hozumi and Duffany entered Portland’s farmers market scene. The Jade Night Market in the summer of 2014 was Obon’s first event, before a two-year run at the Lents farmers market and a slate of other markets and events.
Although Obon found success at farmers markets, it initially faced some challenges as Portlanders were not as familiar with homestyle Japanese cooking as other types of Japanese cuisine like sushi and ramen. “It was a big, steep, uphill battle,” Duffany says. “People didn’t want to try our food, and we had to give out samples.” Compared to San Francisco, Hozumi says the Portland food scene was a bit behind when Obon first launched, and the two spent a lot of time teaching dishes to potential customers. “Not many people knew what onigiris were… also, kenchinjiru was another thing people had a hard time with,” she says. “We started telling them it’s like miso soup, but with more vegetables in it, not like a cup of miso soup you’ll get at sushi restaurants. People used to ask us if korokke were falafels.”
After a while, Obon became a farmers market standby, and the business developed name recognition within Portland’s extensive vegan community. At the new restaurant, then, the two will be able to dive into a wider spectrum of dishes. For lunch, Obon Shokudo will serve the current menu of bentos, curry, onigiris, and okonomiyaki. The dinner menu will include izakaya-style small bites, like skewered dishes. A bar menu — with beverages like freshly squeezed orange juice with sake and soju — is in the works, as well.
Much of the menu will rely on fermented goods, which the two will do themselves: To increase the production of fermented items, Hozumi and Duffany recently launched a new brand called Obon Kojo, to comply with Multnomah County’s fermentation regulations. The new company will provide miso and koji to Obon Shokudo and eventually sell to other restaurants, as well.
For Hozumi and Duffany, there’s much more to Obon than cooking: They want to make organic vegan food accessible to the larger population, regardless of income level. “There’s still a lack of food justice within the restaurant industry,” Duffany says. “We try to do everything organic. That’s the lowest quality you’ll get from us… we want to bring really good food to people that can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods and expensive places.”
“There needs to be more people doing that type of thing,” Hozumi adds. “We are such small fish, what we do for society is a small impact — but this is what we do.”
Obon Shokudo will open at 720 SE Grand Ave. on July 23.
Updated July 15, 2021 at 9:54 a.m.: This story was updated to show that Obon Shokudo now has a later opening date.
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