JCCCNC’s ‘Tabemasho’ fundraiser celebrates family and food

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OISHII! — Among the delicacies served at the event were assorted sushi (left) and gobo, hijiki and tsukemono (right). photos by Kahn Yamada

On Sept. 25, the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC) filled with food and family for its biggest annual fundraising event, “Tabemasho.” The warm air buzzed with conversation and brimmed with the rich, tempting smells of appetizers prepared by more than 10 guest chefs, a fitting atmosphere for the event’s theme “from generation to generation” — the importance of Japanese American food culture. With appetizer stations and their chatty chefs, a food demonstration, and a community cooking contest, “Tabemasho” — which literally means “Let’s eat” — celebrated food’s power to bring people together, honoring Japanese American traditional recipes and the families that have passed them down.

In previous years, the JCCCNC held its fundraising galas at elegant venues including hotels or museums, said Dianne Fukami, president of the board of directors. But last year, considering the difficult economic climate, they opted to hold the event at the JCCCNC itself, a decision they repeated this year. “We wanted to enjoy each other’s company and respect people’s pocketbooks,” Fukami said. “We didn’t need a fancy hotel to bring people together and break bread.”

Volunteer chefs, hailing from restaurants including Hukilau, Bushi-Tei, Mums and Nombe Restaurant, seemed to appreciate this spirit and enjoy the chance to give back to, and interact with, the community. Ozumo’s Chef Mike Yakura, who served miso-yaki salmon with soba noodles, said the event brought to mind the kind of events he’d attended growing up in the Los Angeles Japanese American community. “This is family stuff — we’re in a gymnasium! — so it’s a fun event for us,” Yakura enthused. “I’m third-generation Japanese, so this is about my Japanese heritage.”

Though originally from Malaysia himself, Chef Alex Ong of Betelnut said he looked forward to the chance to show his support for the center and is a huge fan of Japanese and Japanese American culture. “The food is amazing, the culture, the people themselves,” he said. “It’s amazing to see the respect for the elders.”

OMEDETOU! — Honorees at Tabemasho included (from left) George Okamoto Sr., Takeo Okamoto Community Leadership Award recipient Robert Rusky, and Kay Okamoto Volunteer Service Award recipient Marcia Hashimoto.

The sold-out event drew some 400 attendees. Hosted by broadcast journalists Jan Yanehiro and Vic Lee, it included the bestowing of three yearly awards. George Okamoto Sr. and Nomura and Company were recognized for their decades of charitable contributions to the Japanese American community, made possible by the success of their Kokuho Rose Rice. Okamoto was once honored by Emperor Hirohito.The 91-year-old Nikkei still goes into the office everyday.

Awarded the Takeo Okamoto Community Leadership Award for his decades of service to the Japantown community in key legal cases — including the representation of Fred Korematsu — Robert Rusky took the moment to focus the audience’s attention on the Better Neighborhood Plan, a document charting Japantown’s future that is currently being developed.

“I became involved in these issues because of the people, and it became important because the people are important,” Rusky said. “Like many communities of color, it’s struggling to survive. It’s something very valuable to preserve for the children.”

Marcia Hashimoto, winner of the Kay Okamoto Volunteer Service Award, said she was humbled to have been selected and expressed passion for her active volunteer work in her Watsonville, Calif. community. “So many people are generous in time and effort; you see that and get inspired to want to be a part of it,” Hashimoto said. “It makes you feel good to be able to contribute in any way you can.”

This year the event also included the “Kuishinbo” cooking contest, for which more than 35 participants submitted a favorite dish that had been passed down in their family. Naoko Ito, 84, proudly distributed pieces of her winning makizushi, filled with egg, mushroom, gourd, shrimp and beans — the multiple ingredients to which she attributed her success. “But it’s too much trouble to make very often,” she said.

Ito’s choice to prepare and share her artfully constructed rolls — and her recognition for them — epitomized the evening’s overall message, as summed up by board member Donna Kotake in the event’s final speech.

“Don’t take for granted that these dishes will always be there,” Kotake said. “It is my hope that the Nisei generation will share these recipes and stories, and the other generations will proactively seek them out.”

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