With a mix of seasoned entrants and first-timers, five curry cooks vied for top honors at the Japanese American Religious Federation’s ninth annual Curry Cook-Off in San Francisco’s Japantown on Oct. 15.
The cook-off is the primary annual fundraiser for the Japanese American Religious Federation (JARF), a consortium of 12 churches that serve the Japanese American community in San Francisco. The proceeds of this year’s event went to the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California’s (JCCCNC) Northern Japan Earthquake Relief Fund.
With more than 35 raffle prizes, numerous local businesses, churches, organizations and individuals came together to help sponsor the event at the Christ United Presbyterian Church.
Why curry? Curry rice is a popular dish that has been beloved by the Japanese for well over a hundred years, eventually evolving to the Japanese-style of curry that is known and loved today. Japanese curry is distinct from Indian and South East Asian curries; the rue has a sweetness derived from fruits, such as apples, and is often slightly heavier in consistency with a rich brown color. However, despite its distinction, the ingredients and spices used spread far and wide, with secret ingredients ranging from creative to the utterly surprising.
Melissa Yan, the creator of “Curry Potter and the Goblet of Deliciousness,” created a sweet and slightly spicy curry with Thai and Indian influences for her debut at the cook-off. What was her secret ingredient? Sweet potato. “That and love!”
Ralph Tanaka’s “Veggie in the Mix” curry also seemed to have used that secret ingredient, as judges found his dish to be “homey” and “the ultimate comfort food.”
This was Arisa Takahashi’s third year competing. After winning the first year she entered, she noted that competition has since become stiffer. This year’s entry included a couple of different fruits. The secret ingredient in her “Veggie-licious” dish was cinnamon. “There are cloves in there, too,” she said.
The vegetarian curry winner, Leo Balambao, wowed judges with his “Vegetarian Special.” It was created from an original recipe. “It’s a mushroom and kabocha-based curry with coconut milk.” Balambao’s curry was surprisingly meaty. “I like to let it sit for one day so they kind of saturate.”
Konko Church of San Francisco Rev. Rodney Yano’s “Guilty Pleasure” curry was this year’s runaway winner, taking dual honors in both the Overall Judge’s Choice and the People’s Choice categories. “I tried my very best this year. It’s slightly different every year,” he explained. Yano’s curry was savory, with large chunks of tender beef floating in the rue. “Out of all the curries that I’ve made, this is the one I’ve spent the most time on,” said Yano, who revealed that he spent two days concocting the dish.
And of course, what was the winning secret ingredient? “People might not eat it if they knew — especially if they’re health conscious. It’s mayonnaise. Some people are like, [gasp] mayonnaise! I can’t eat it anymore.”
With seven years of Curry Cook-Off experience under his belt, Yano will be tough to beat next year. And yes, he will be entering. “I’ll probably enter every year. It’s good practice for me, and I enjoy it.”
And the Winner is…
FIRST PLACE Winner and People’s Choice winner: Rev. Rodney Yano’s “Guilty Pleasure”
SECOND PLACE (TIE): Ralph Tanaka’s “Veggie in the Mix” and Melissa Yan’s “Curry Potter and the Goblet of Deliciousness”
Vegetarian entry winner: Leo Balambao’s “Vegetarian Special”
Creative entry winner: Arisa Takahashi’s “Veggie-licious”
Dianne Fukami, Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California
Tetsuya Iwata, Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco
Jeddie Kawahatsu, 2011 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen
Emily Murase, San Francisco Unified School District Board
Hiroshi Shimizu, San Francisco chapter, Japanese American Citizens League