Nonprofit celebrates the joy of soy, builds community, at annual fundraiser in S.F.’s Japantown

Tofu Panda and Cutie Tofutti. photo by William Lee

Tofu Panda and Cutie Tofutti. photo by William Lee

Sweets, dancing and flying tofu graced the Peace Plaza June 7 during the Nichi Bei Foundation’s fourth annual Soy and Tofu Festival in San Francisco’s Japantown. The event, celebrating “the joy of soy,” is a fundraiser for the nonprofit that invited the San Francisco Bay Area’s gourmands and health conscious alike to sample and buy unique soy products and be entertained by performing artists and educators.

Kenji G. Taguma, co-chair of the festival and president of the Nichi Bei Foundation, said the event gathered more than 20,000 people, a considerable increase from the 3,500 attendees estimated to have attended four years ago. 

“The Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival, at its heart and soul, is the largest fundraiser of the year for the Nichi Bei Foundation,” said Taguma. “Overall, we’re overwhelmed by the success of this year’s festival, and while we may need to figure out how to make it a more viable fundraiser, we’re more than delighted at how it brings a new generation of leadership together for a common cause, while bringing thousands of people into Japantown.”

This year’s festival expanded from the previous year, adding more arts and crafts activities and games at the Tiny Tofu Town on Buchanan Mall, a section created in 2013 that aimed to bring more families to the event. Children shot darts and painted glass sandals and were entertained by a steady stream of entertainment at the Tiny Tofu Town Stage. Ben Kam, the festival’s designer, created some new games and the festival’s newest mascot.

“Soy and tofu gets such a bad rap despite being such a versatile and healthy food source,” he said. Kam said the original design for the festival’s logo aimed to create a friendly and approachable brand for tofu

The Peace Plaza Stage

The Peace Plaza Stage hosted activities and presentations throughout the day with emcees George Kiriyama, formerly of NBC Bay Area, and KTVU’s Jana Katsuyama. The festival opened with Eden Aoba Taiko and featured musical guests Ron Quesada, Curt Yagi and the People Standing Behind Me, the Francis Wong Ensemble, Brian Mitsuhiro Wong and CryWolffs. Educational programs by participating vendors such as Signature Soy, Hodo Soy Beanery, other vendors and a spotlight on the Asian American Donor Program were interspersed between music.

One of the most anticipated events was the annual Soy and Tofu Dessert Competition. The competition featured three finalists, Masako Nakatani with her Tofu Berry Tart, Annie Ha and her Durian Creme Brulee and Tiffany Wong’s Kinako Ice Cream with Toasted Tofu Dango and Anko. Eddy Lau, a chef based in San Francisco; Henry Hsu, Hodo Soy Beanery chef; Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action; Emily Murase, San Francisco Board of Education member; and Moses Yasukochi, owner of Yasukochi’s Sweet Stop judged the desserts along with a panel of 40 audience members.

The panel of judges gave Nakatani’s Tofu Berry Tart and Wong’s Kinako Ice Cream top marks, as the two tied for first place.

Nakatani, who is a Japanese sweets baking instructor, used a tofu cream in place of custard to fill the tart, combining the cream with vanilla and cream cheese with orange peel for zest. Hsu praised the tart, saying the cream incorporated a light soy flavor that wasn’t overbearing. Yasukochi said the texture was “very good” and “almost like a puff pastry.” Murase praised the use of seasonal berries and added “I wouldn’t think this is a tofu dish.” 

Wong used her ice cream maker to create a cold and sweet treat that combines with a chewy tofu dango, topped with caramelized sugar and anko (red bean paste). Pan drew out his cell phone to take a photo of the dessert and told Kiriyama, “it’s very delicious, I like it.” Lau remarked that anko is common among Asian sweets, but the combination with the dango and ice cream gave the whole dish a different texture. Yasukochi, however, said the dango was too hard.

Ha won third place with her Durian Creme Brulee. Ha said she loves durian fruit despite its prohibitive smell, and said the creme brulee masked the smell. Lau, who is a fan of durian fruit, said he enjoyed the dessert. “It tastes like durian … but it’s not overly sweet,” he said. Murase said she was always afraid of trying durian, but was pleasantly surprised by the sweetness. Yasukochi remarked, “I don’t even know what durian is,” and went on to say the brulee could be crispier. 

Audience member judge, Scott Harris, said he liked all three entries. “I think the ice cream is the most unique, but if you’re going for incorporating a soy flavor, the tart is best. I think the creme brulee is the most creative though, I wouldn’t have thought to combine durian and soy.”

Along with the dessert competition, several performers also appeared on stage, including Chin Chin the Magician and juggler Michael Pearce. Both first performed at the Tiny Tofu Town Stage on the Buchanan Street Mall, before making an encore performance on the main stage. Pearce not only juggled traditional clubs and balls, but took to juggling three bricks of tofu, which he ate as he juggled.

“I was practicing my routine where I juggle apples and thought, ‘since this is the Soy and Tofu Fest, I should make it event appropriate,’” he said.

Vendors from Around the Nation

Products extended beyond the typical with soyrizos (meatless chorizos), soy candles and do-it-yourself soy milk and tofu. Vendors from across the nation participated, showing a wide-range of uses.

Sebastopol, Calif.-based Megumi Natto returned to the festival this year to present natto wraps. “Previously we did plain natto, then natto soba, and this year we’re doing a natto wrap, made by our chef,” said Tomoe Endo of Megumi Natto. “I think in mixing the natto with the vegetables, it masks the natto taste many people have trouble with.”

Food trucks parked along Post Street to serve up soy-based specialties. Naked Chorizo, a Spanish Filipino taco-truck served up soyrizo tacos, which Zenia Llamas devised to cater to a vegetarian diet, while The Chairman Truck returned with its crispy garlic tofu with miso greens.

Keizo Shimamoto's The Original Ramen Burger. photo by William Lee

Keizo Shimamoto’s The Original Ramen Burger. photo by William Lee

The Original Ramen Burger from New York by Keizo Shimamoto was sold out of the JapaCurry truck. The ramen burger made its debut in San Francisco and, for the first time, offered a vegetarian tofu burger variant. Jeffrey Shimamoto said the burger, started by his brother, has taken off in Southern California and popped up in other cities such as Honolulu and Miami. Shimamoto said his brother chose to follow his dream to open a ramen shop after the financial crisis of 2008, going to Japan for four years to study ramen-making.

“There are ramen burgers in Japan, but they use chashu pork,” he said. “We grew up with beef patties and so we tried to see if it works.” The Shin-Nisei Orange County, Calif. natives debuted in New York’s Bronx borough last August and were featured on “Good Morning America,” making them an instant hit.

“We showed up the next day in Smorgasburg (a food market) in Brooklyn with 150 burgers to find 400 people in line,” he said.

Their new creation, the Tofu Ramen Burger, reportedly sold out in just 30 minutes at the Soy and Tofu Festival.

Also featured at the festival was Signature Soy, based out of North Dakota. The all-natural soy company sells bags of non-GMO soybeans grown to spec for various soy product uses, such as soymilk, tofu, natto and sprouts. Tara Miller runs the marketing side of the family venture. Her brother is a soybean farmer like her father, while her sister manages research on developing new soybean strains specified for certain uses.

“My dad gained an interest in soy beans and went to Japan to study what qualities people look for when making tofu, or soy milk, or natto,” she said. For two decades, the Miller patriarch grew and sold soybeans for use in Asia through their family farm and processing facility, Brushvale Seed. Through cross-pollination, Miller’s sister creates new varieties of soybeans specifically made for soymilk, tofu, natto and sprouts. Miller said she and her sister developed the idea to sell the soybeans to individual consumers in the United States last year.

“We are excited about being available to the general public,” Miller said. “We’re still small, so we’re only available online, but it would be great if we make our way to stores.”

Building Community

While the festival successfully attracted visitors to Japantown, the Nichi Bei Foundation has set its sights to incorporating community building into the event.

“This year, we solidified that in addition to public education on the benefits of soy products, the mission of the Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival would focus on community-building and leadership development,” said Taguma. “In the process of community-building, we engage a number of community-based organizations like Nakayoshi Young Professionals and student groups, as well as individuals, who help with certain areas of the Festival. The future of Japantown, and the community in general, rests with how we continue to engage people who can and want to help out, so in the larger picture, this has become crucial to the community-building process, in my opinion.”

Kiyomi Tanaka, festival co-chair, said the event would not be possible without the efforts of its volunteers. “There were so many dedicated volunteers that came to assist from different parts of our community,” she said. Organizers said more than 90 volunteers made the event possible. 

Tanaka also said the vendors at the festival were a major draw to the day’s activities. “I think that the wide variety of new and veteran vendors — food and non-food alike — was a huge draw for our crowd. There were so many exciting things to see, experience and learn — it was a full event!”

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

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