Celebrating the soy bean: 2017 Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival

2017 San Francisco Cherry Blossom Queen and Court. photo by William Lee

The Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival returned to The Event Center at Saint Mary’s Cathedral June 17 in San Francisco to celebrate the many applications of the soy bean. Paired with music, games and its annual Soy and Tofu Dessert Competition, the seventh annual fundraiser for the Nichi Bei Foundation, publishers of the Nichi Bei Weekly, celebrated all things having to do with the little legume.

While this year’s event was a showcase of the versatility of soy, it also featured entertainment from emerging artists, breakout national stars and cultural icons.

“We wanted to have an event that would appeal to a community outside of our typical Japanese American community,” Kiyomi Takeda, Nichi Bei Foundation board chair, said.

Selling the Versatility of Soy

The festival, Takeda noted, is not solely focused on Nikkei variations of soy, allowing the event to engage with attendees and committee members who are outside the Japanese American community.

The Sarap Shop offered the Filipino staple sisig with a twist; instead of using meat from the pig’s head and liver, the food truck and caterer served a vegan tofu-based sisig in a taco.

“A lot of people are hesitant because, ‘that’s not real sisig,’ but we wanted to be inclusive and offer dishes that accommodate people’s dietary restrictions,” said JP Reyes, co-owner of The Sarap Shop. “It was a hit, it’s one of our most popular dishes, not just with vegans but for meat eaters as well.” As a testament to its tastiness, the tofu sisig sold out midway through the festival.

Another vendor, Tsubi Soup, sold its instant miso soup. While other companies sell freeze-dried instant miso soup, Elly Amano said her company stands out as a vegan alternative that’s free of GMOs and MSG. While initially developed in Japan, Amano said demand for the product was particularly strong in America, where people wanted a vegan miso soup, which typically uses bonito flakes. “If you try our soups, it’s much more milder,” she said of the kelp and shiitake-based broth.

Another vegan offering was Tofu Yu of Berkeley, Calif., headed by Kevin Stong. Stong considers himself a “tofu architect,” juggling two jobs as a licensed architect and a tofu maker. “We can do anything with tofu. I can make tofu taste like anything, even seafood. It’s all in the seasoning,” Stong said. Tofu-Yu featured more staple garlic-flavored fried tofu packs as well as tofu pasta, soy jerky and chicken-flavored tofu nuggets.

While the concept of soy and tofu often denotes vegetarian or vegan fare, the festival welcomed its applications to meats. “We have soy in all of our jerky,” said Ken Figueiredo of Smoked Out Jerky. “It helps out the flavor because it enhances all the rest of the flavors in the beef.” Figueiredo works with his cousin who produces the jerky in Hemet, Calif. to deliver jerky made out of brisket from Harris Ranch. Offering interesting flavors such as “Mango Habanero” and “Sea Salt, Honey and Pepper,” Figueiredo said his “Tropical Fusion” flavored jerky was the most popular.

Others sold artisanal varieties of staple soy products. The Japanese Pantry, a recent start-up headed by Chris Bonomo and Greg Dunmore, aims to introduce the history and stories behind products previously impossible to find in America. Bonomo said he was happy he attended the festival to meet customers and tell them about the history and story behind each of each of his products. Bonomo said the biggest factor in making a product “artisanal” is the care manufacturers put into their products. “Care in selecting the ingredients, care in the process to make, care in the time that you age the product,” he said, pointing out a bottle of tamari soy sauce he sells had been aged for three years, whereas a normal bottle of shoyu would take about six months.

Megumi Natto. photo by Scott Nakajima / Nakajima Photography

Megumi Natto returned to the festival, offering its U.S.-made organic natto. This year, the company also conducted a cooking demonstration to show off the versatility of natto as an ingredient in recipes. Mari Lancaster made a simple natto salad for attendees, serving sliced cabbage and tomatoes with natto, olive oil and sesame seeds to allow natto first-timers to try the fermented beans. “It’s an acquired taste, but I just love it,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Sometimes I just crave … it.”

Lancaster said people in Japan eat natto in a variety of ways, but Americans also have adapted the fermented beans to Western cuisine, serving it with burgers, lasagna and sandwiches. She explained that the smell that often turns off would-be natto eaters comes from a secondary fermentation of the beans that occurs after freezing them for transportation from Japan, which Megumi Natto does not have to do since their natto is locally made in Sebastopol, Calif.

“It’s very mild, interesting. We eat a lot of soy beans, just not natto,” said Mary Hom, who said she had tried natto for the first time at the festival. While the slimy texture would take getting used to, she said she would be open to trying it out again, next time on rice or ramen.

Strawberry Banana Smoothies at the Morinaga Tofu booth. photo by Scott Nakajima/Nakajima Photography

Other variations of soy were found in a variety of soy and ponzu sauces — as well as Pearl Soymilk — donated by Kikkoman. Strawberry banana smoothie samples made with contributed Morinaga silken tofu, and samples of one of the last handmade tofu in the country, donated by San Jose Tofu were also offered. Clif Bar also contributed samples of their various products.

Healthy Serving of Entertainment

While food stands at the center of the day’s programing, the variety of on-stage entertainment offered throughout the day shined through the event. The day started with the Chung Ngai Dance Troupe parading through the exhibition hall with lion dancing. Mike Inouye, morning traffic anchor for NBC Bay Area, and Jana Katsuyama, reporter at KTVU Fox 2, reprised their roles as emcees.

Tofu Eating Contest. photo by William Lee

The annual tofu-eating contest, featuring an international cast of competitors, with contestants coming from as far as Hong Kong and Newfoundland, Canada, was won by San Francisco resident Sherman Auyeung, who excitedly held up a block of Morinage Tofu he won for eating a block of silken tofu faster than four other people. “Yeah, I like tofu,” he said. “But it wasn’t as good when you’re eating it that fast.”

Trace Repeat. photo by William Lee

Other entertainers included the Parangal Dance Company, singer-songwriter MJ Lee., Oakland-based funk and soul band Trace Repeat, San Jose Taiko and ‘ukulele prodigy and Hawai‘i native Aidan James. Finishing the day, poet and rapper G Yamazawa let his rhymes flow, talking about growing up Asian American in North Carolina and performing throughout the United States.

The festival underwent major changes last year, moving indoors (having been held its first five years at the Peace Plaza of San Francisco’s Japantown). Takeda said the festival has improved, even if it has a long way to go. “Overall, people had a great time, specifically saying that they enjoyed the entertainment. The quality was a lot better,” she said.

Sweet and Healthy

The Soy and Tofu Dessert Competition, sponsored this year by washlet maker TOTO, ended in a tie between two of the three finalists. Making a return from last year, Akimi Furutani took first place among the judges choice with her Tofu no Kaiseki Zukushi, but shared the winner’s title with Tamako Park-Li’s Tofu Espresso Panna Cotta, who tied with the three-point bonus for being the audience favorite. Both winners split the $300 cash prize. George Lee came in third with his Edamame Coconut Mille Feuille.

Noriko Abe, pastry chef and owner of Patisserie Norina in San Francisco; Tokiko Sawada, co-owner and pastry chef of Izakaya Binchoyaki in Sacramento Calif.; Denisha Powell, a former pastry chef and baker at Ritz Carlton Hotels; Ryan Lee, former owner of Kare-Ken and board member of Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco; and Grant Din, community resources director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, served as the judges for the competition.

Furutani presented a soy-based dessert version of kaiseki ryori, a multi-course traditional Japanese meal originating from the tea ceremony tradition. The dessert, featuring a tofu coffee rare cheese, matcha shiruko (a sweet and thick green tea soup), kinako ame (powdered soy candy) and tofu no ume dango (small sweet mochi balls), won over both competition judges and audience judges alike.

“First of all, it’s very pretty, a nice presentation,” said Abe. She commended Furutani for her ume dango and said her rare cheese incorporated soy well and tasted healthy. “I can feel your sensitivity comes from the heart.”

Irene Nexica voted for Furutani’s dish as an audience judge. “It was more adventurous, the other two … an amazing soy version of already established dessert, but (Furutani’s dessert) I felt was so imaginative in terms of the flavor combinations and the use of ingredients,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “They were all good, but I feel like, ‘Oh my God, what’s this flavor?’”

Tofu has a vast range of potential to be used in all kinds of cooking, whether it be for meals or desserts,” Furutani told the Nichi Bei Weekly after winning the competition. “I would like to take my time to further study and introduce even tastier recipes in the future.” According to the third-time competitor, she had spent about two months developing the mini dishes after first being inspired to create the kaiseki-style dish.

FIRST PLACE (TIE) & PEOPLE’S CHOICE:
Tofu Espresso Panna Cotta, By Tamako Park-Li. photo by William Lee

Park-Li said her panna cotta is a modernized version of her grandmother’s recipe, using cold brew coffee and soy products in the place of whipped cream and flour. While Park-Li has been making the original dairy version of this recipe for years, she adapted it for the dessert competition. She noted that this version has a quarter of the calories as the dairy version.

“I don’t really miss the dairy, I like the lightness of everything,” Din said.

“It doesn’t taste like tofu and soy. It tastes like real dessert,” said Ayako Yee, an audience judge who voted for the panna cotta. “I could see myself making it.”

Park-Li told the Nichi Bei Weekly she had created many iterations of her dessert before submitting it to the contest, having her family and friends try out prototypes before settling on the final recipe. “Maybe again next year,” she said. “We’ll see. Gotta come up with a good idea.”

For more information about the Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival, visit www.soyandtofufest.org.

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