Two West Coast Women Who Are Shaping How We Eat
Making products with familial and international roots, these makers build reputations on small batches, fair workplaces, and good ingredients
We periodically spotlight producers we like as a partnership. Today’s duo comes from the West Coast: Robin Koda of Koda Farms in California and Nikki Guerrero of Hot Mama Salsa in Oregon.
What rice should taste like
“We are located in a poor area,” Robin Koda told me on a phone call earlier this week. “Labor has always been a challenge here.”
Yet even through Covid, the family business is making things work.
Koda Farms in South Dos Palos, California is legendary in some circles as one of the oldest family-owned and operated farms in the state. Koda Farms grows rice that has flavor — a departure from bland commodity rice you’d find in a grocery store. Though heirloom varietals have a shorter shelf life, characteristics make it a gourmet’s go-to, from the mildly sweet white Kokuho Rose that’s starchy with a clean finish to the sweeter Sho-Chiku-Bai mochi-style rice. Mark uses it, along with restaurants like Superiority Burger in New York, and Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco, among others.
Koda Farms was started by Robin’s grandfather, Keisaburo Koda, from Japan, who moved to California in 1908. Between the ‘20s and the ‘30s, he moved his family to the San Joaquin Valley in central California, where he set up a rice farm and mill — following the footsteps of his father, who was a rice miller and broker in Japan. The year 1941 led to the family’s internment in a camp, and, upon their release in 1945, they found their farm liquidated and had to rebuild, at which point his sons joined the family business and helped in expanding the acreage as well as varieties of rice grown on the farm. In the ‘60’s they enlisted the help of specialty breeders to develop their heirloom medium-grain rice by crossing Japanese short-grain and Syrian long-grain varieties, resulting in medium-grain Kokuho Rose as well as Sho-Chiku-Bai Sweet Rice. The farm also mills rice flours. (You can find out more about their Japanese rice here.)
During the lockdown, people hoarded products, Robin observed, and orders were bonkers. “It was wasteful and short-sighted,” she said. But unlike commodity products, which are seeing backups around the country, a rice order from Koda Farms is on time or closer to it because there are fewer go-betweens from farm to table.
Robin maintains that rice should be tasty in its own right and cites her family's emotional legacy and commitment to quality. It doesn’t need condiments for flavor: It stands on its own.
‘If I started with the chile oils in 2008, there’s no way people would have bought them.’
Nikki Guerrero said it’s common to see dried chiles in oil on the table in a Mexican household. Yet she didn't launch a business making it. Instead, her little Portland, Oregon company, Hot Mama Salsa, launched making fresh salsa she’d sell at local shops and farmers markets back in 2008. This was something that the Portland market wanted,” she said of her four fresh salsas, starting with her family recipe, Gramal’s Chilie Salsa, with stewed jalapeños, tomatoes, cilantro, garlic, and onions.
Having moved to Oregon from the Southwest, Nikki launched her business with the help of a friend from Arizona who bought a market in North Portland; her friend was “dreaming of having fresh chips and salsa on the shelves just like home.” To make it happen, she brokered Nikki access to wholesale ingredients and a workspace, then sold her salsas at the shop.
Slowly but surely, getting Nikki’s name out there and building customer loyalty has allowed her to expand to include hot sauces and Mexican chile oil. “If I started with the chile oils in 2008, there’s no way people would have bought them,” she said. The oils include a traditional Chilie de Arbol and the least hot Guajillo option. There’s also the captivating Smoky Coffee Chilie Oil that evokes the flavors of a mole, made with four dried Mexican dried chiles toasted in peanut oil with black garlic, ground coffee, and sesame seeds.
While she now employs about a dozen workers, her goal is to maintain a circular economy, “so our businesses support each other," she said. Of her work, she said, “It’s a real honor to share my culture, my family, and my love of chiles."