Where I grew up in New York City, every corner bodega seemed to keep the same mysterious cookies by the register. They looked like oversized, homemade Fig Newtons and sat in short stacks above the name-brand candy, encased in plastic wrap and devoid of labels. I always wondered: Where did they come from? And why did I want them so badly?
I blame those cookies for my ongoing fascination with packaged food of unclear provenance. Nowadays, I see these products most often in L.A.'s natural food stores and farmers markets. I've sampled more than a few. So to help you recover from the holiday eating blitz, here are five favorite local, small-production health food brands — and a bit about the enigmatic folks behind them.
FOR THE RECORD:
Health food companies: In the Jan. 17 Saturday section, an article about health food entrepreneurs described Ken Maeda as founder of the vegetarian Japanese food purveyor Souzai-ya. He is a co-founder.
Dave's Gourmet Korean Food
Every Saturday at the Silver Lake farmers market, customers flock to a corner booth. There, a bearded guy named Rob spears bites of kimchee and daikon radish onto toothpicks, offering samples in a surfer dude drawl. There are rumors about Dave, the man behind this vegan Korean side dish line that Rob peddles. But Rob recently set me straight. Dave is in fact a press-shy Korean immigrant and family man, Rob said, who started out more than a decade ago as a caterer specializing in traditional Korean barbecue. After his kimchee, which happened to be vegan, caught on, Dave switched to animal-free recipes to cater to L.A.'s health-conscious crowd. Now his cult following is legion, and he's a popular vendor at farmers markets around the city. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Daves-Gourmet-Korean/189264461091628
Keeping with the theme of Asian side dishes, these tiny packages of vegetarian Japanese foods started appearing in local health food stores and juice bars, such as Naturewell, a few years ago. The offerings include soft, salty little soy-and-vegetable patties called tofu cakes; vegetable dumplings; and seaweed salad. Founder Ken Maeda is a Japanese immigrant who worked his way up from dishwasher to chef at Ta-Ke Sushi Restaurant in West Hollywood over about 20 years. He struck out on his own in 2011. One key lesson: "I started out using cane sugar, and everybody said, 'If you don't use the sugar, I'll buy it.' So we changed the recipe." http://www.facebook.com/pages/Souzai-ya/150177928356750
Virtuous chocolate truffles, macaroons and cookies? Can it be that all my dreams have come true? Apparently so, but the truffles are the standouts. These dense spheres come in mint chocolate, white chocolate and "superfoods supreme," which are packed with ingredients like goji berries, gluten-free oats and spirulina. You can almost feel yourself getting more beautiful with each bite. Rawkin Raw founder Erinn Williams is perhaps the best testament to that. She's a gorgeous, red-haired ex-model/singer-songwriter/yogi, and she developed the brand from her home experiments in creating raw desserts. rawenergyandlife.com
I confess to a full-blown obsession with Zen's banana-walnut muffins. They're free of refined sugar, dairy and eggs, and weigh in at roughly the size of my head. What's not to love? The West L.A.-based Zen also makes vegan cookies, scones and the unfortunately named "fiber cakes," which are basically mini-muffins. The brand is bigger than some others on the list, with products made and sold in several cities. But it maintains a quirky, homegrown vibe. On the company website, 78-year-old bakery founder Jack Drake identifies himself only as Sotaku, a "muffin monk" who came to baking through divine inspiration. "We have fun with it," he explains. zenbakery.com
Healthy Times makes delicious pad Thai, vegetarian burgers, spring rolls and rice-vegetable-tofu dishes. The food comes in no-nonsense 8-ounce containers and is sold at Whole Foods. You can't go wrong with the pumpkin rice, an immensely satisfying, salty-sweet concoction. Information about the company's background, however, is far harder to come by than its wares. The kitchen is in North Hollywood, and a manager there told me only that the owner is in Thailand and started the business about 10 years ago. Hopefully he's traveling the world for more recipes?