Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival rocks the cathedral


The 2016 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen court with mascot Cutie Tofutti at the sixth annual Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival. photo by Johnny Nagano

Celebrating the “joy of soy,” the Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival took over The Event Center at Saint Mary’s Cathedral June 4 to celebrate the versatile soy bean and all its applications. This year marked the sixth year the Nichi Bei Foundation held its festival and fundraiser, featuring entertainment, food and fun for the whole family.

“The primary purpose of the festival is to serve as a fundraiser for our organization. It is the Nichi Bei’s effort to outreach to a broader community while simultaneously having a fun and educational event,” said Kiyomi Takeda, Nichi Bei Foundation board chair.

The event, previously held about two blocks away at San Francisco Japantown’s Peace Plaza, however, went through several changes this year. Aside from the location, the event charged admission this year.

“Given the unpredictability of the weather as well as the rising costs of city permits, it was simply the only way we could create a safe and feasible plan for our one-day event,” Takeda said. “As a fundraiser, we wanted to keep the expenses as low as possible while still having a quality program. We were fortunate because June 4th ended up being quite overcast and gloomy so the indoor venue shielded us from potentially bad weather.”

Kenji G. Taguma, Nichi Bei Foundation president and chair of the festival, said the event went well despite the changes. “Given that we took an outdoors free festival, moved it inside, and charged admission, I think the festival was quite successful,” Taguma said.

He said that he had recognized in advance that the changes meant the event would need “to upgrade the level of entertainment, and do a greater job marketing the festival to the masses.”

Emcees Mike Inouye of NBC Bay Area and Jana Katsuyama of KTVU Fox 2 dance to San Jose Taiko's "Ei Ja Nai Ka." photo by William Lee
Emcees Mike Inouye of NBC Bay Area and Jana Katsuyama of KTVU Fox 2 dance to San Jose Taiko’s “Ei Ja Nai Ka.” photo by William Lee

Entertaining More Than the Stomach
To draw in a crowd, the festival hosted a wide range of musical guests. The San Francisco-based Cynthia Lin and the Blue Moon All Stars started the event and featured a song by Ukulenny on embracing a vegetarian diet for the sake of love. San Jose Taiko kicked off the Obon festival season by playing “Ei Ja Nai Ka,” a song for Obon composed by San Jose Taiko founder PJ Hirabayashi. The East Bay’s Murasaki Ensemble Trio played a fusion of jazz and Japanese traditional koto music and the Sacramento region’s College Fund Street Band — a talented group of young siblings — played popular songs for the audience.

Curt Yagi and the People Standing Behind Me. photo by William Lee
Curt Yagi and the People Standing Behind Me. photo by William Lee

Returning musical guests CryWolffs on electric violin and Curt Yagi & the People Standing Behind Me also performed.

This is Yagi’s fifth time performing at the festival. “I just like the vibe of the festival.

People seem to have a good time here,” he said. “At this point, we can’t miss it.”

Ukulenny, who wrote the song “Diet for You” to his pescatarian fiancée, said he “eats everything,” but has always enjoyed tofu and other soy products. “I’ve even quested for the best fried tofu,” he told the Nichi Bei Weekly. While he joked that the indoor festival first felt like a “Soy and Tofu Conference,” he said the venue allowed him and the band to play and interact better with the audience than an audience outside.

“With charging admission, the people that come are people that are interested in coming to support the vendors and bands,” he noted.

College Fund Street Band. photo by William Lee
College Fund Street Band. photo by William Lee

The College Fund Street Band plays at various festivals to raise money for the Fong siblings’ future college educations. Leland Fong, 12, said he first formed the band with his brothers and sisters after his parents refused to give him money while on vacation in Ashland, Ore. three years ago. “I took a ukulele and got out on the street and in an hour I made 60 bucks,” he said. “And we thought, if one of us can make $60 an hour, what can all of us do?”

While the Nichi Bei Foundation had asked San Jose Taiko to perform at the festival in years past, Geoff Noone, an artistic staff member of the group, said they could not perform at the event until now, due to scheduling conflicts. “We like doing performances that appeal to the Japanese American community,” Noone said. He added that among the taiko group’s reasons for participating in the festival was to support vendor San Jose Tofu. “San Jose Tofu is a huge source of pride for (San Jose’s) Japantown,” he said. Noone described the mom-and-pop shop as being “a pillar of the community.”

Between the musical acts, KTVU Fox 2’s Jana Katsuyama and NBC Bay Area’s Mike Inouye returned as the festival’s emcees and Stephen Chun, traffic reporter at KCBS radio, headed the on-stage games, including the tofu-eating contests.

Festival Vendors
The festival, celebrating the varied uses of soy, invited vendors to sell and give out their creations. Along with festival mainstays such as Kikkoman, SoyJoy, San Jose Tofu, Nakayoshi Café and other returning vendors, several new vendors joined the festival this year. Morinaga Nutritional Foods Inc. donated their Mori-Nu silken tofu and Japan Traditional Foods presented their Megumi Natto.

Individual vendors also sold their tasty dishes featuring soy. New food vendors this year included Veggie Tandoor with their Tofu Tikka Masala Wraps, Rawsheed Native Fusion’s vegan “fish and chips” and Village Ko’s artisanal Korean products.

Rawsheed Patton of Rawsheed Native Fusion became a vegetarian 20 years ago for health reasons, but his diet later became a source of spirituality. Combining his knowledge of cooking from his parents, Patton attained success developing vegan cuisine as a restaurateur and caterer and also has also sold his products through Whole Foods Market.

Vanita Sajnani of Veggie Tandoor. photo by William Lee
Vanita Sajnani of Veggie Tandoor. photo by William Lee

Vanita Sajnani said she has always been passionate about cooking. Becoming a vegan, she began experimenting with tofu and other soy products to create traditional tandoor foods that are vegan-friendly. She opened Veggie Tandoor to offer vegan tandoori food six months ago, and said her food has been well received. “Our vegan kebab and the tofu tikka are the most popular,” she said.

Village Ko. photo by JOhnny Nagano
Village Ko. photo by Johnny Nagano

James Chung and his sister Sewon Chung started to market Korean artisanal products to English-speaking customers two years ago. Chung said the products that Village Ko offers were previously available in the United States, but only marketed to the Korean-speaking community. Many of these goods, such as soy sauce brewed in 100-year-old clay pots and home-brew rice wine kits, have stories behind them that are normally lost in translation. “The products have stories beyond the product info,” he said. “The source and makers of these products sometimes have amazing stories.”

Also joining the festivities this year were soy candle maker Rx Candles, apparel-makers 6 Degrees of Hapa, Dazzling Dragons and HugaSumo.

Anthony Aranas of RxCandles said his sister in Los Angeles started making soy candles as Christmas gifts for fellow office mates, calling them “Rx” as a cure for the “cubicle blues.” They produce scents, Aranas said, that “we want to smell” that are not normally found in stores. “Bora Bora and grapefruit are our best-selling candles. In Japanese festivals or events, pikake and tuberose sell well too,” he said.

Naomi Shepherd started 6 Degrees of Hapa in 2011 to teach and spread diversity through the term of “hapa” and has sold apparel celebrating and preserving her mixed-race heritage. “It’s all about family,” she said. “With some people, you can’t tell (they are half-Asian),” she said.

HugaSumo started 15 years ago when Shirley Inokuchi made Christmas gifts for fellow churchgoers. Looking for a source of income, Inokuchi said she began making apparel featuring fun designs while caring for her family. “I needed a flexible income and it’s a creative outlet,” she said.

Dazzling Dragons sold Asian-inspired bags that are “affordable and useful.” Diana Shiba and Mildred Lorette have partnered to create useful bags and other accessories for travel. Shiba said the bags can be handy for people who buy too many souvenirs while abroad. “I always end up buying too much while on vacation and need an extra bag to take in the suitcase,” said Shiba. To cater to travelers, Shiba said they also started selling luggage tags.

Innovative Desserts
Four finalists squared off to compete in this year’s Soy and Tofu Dessert Competition. The entries, which were required to use a soy product as at least one of their main ingredients, vied for the first place prize of $300 in cash.

Lauren Morimoto and Tai Iwamasa judge the desserts. photo by Johnny Nagano
Lauren Morimoto and Tai Iwamasa judge the desserts. photo by Johnny Nagano

Among the finalists were two-time winner Masako Nakatani and last year’s winner Akimi Furutani competing against food scientist Elaine Chow and accountant Yuko Koenig.

While Nakatani’s Fromage Tofu was picked as the audience favorite, the panel of judges voted Chow’s Kinako Brownie Cake as this year’s winner. Koenig’s Tofu White Chocolate Mousse took second place, Nakatani’s entry took third and Furutani’s Tonyu Amazake

Tofu Pudding with Sakura Kanten Jelly came in fourth.

The judges this year were Grace Yoo, director of San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies Department; Elsie Lam, vice president of the Chinese Historical Society of America; Chef Eloise Lim, owner and pastry chef of DeLise Dessert Cafe; Noriko Abe, owner and pastry chef of Patisserie Norina; and Nick Rose-Rankin, a research and development chef with Sprig: Dine on Demand.

Elaine Chow's Kinako Brownie Cake won first place. photo by William Lee
Elaine Chow’s Kinako Brownie Cake won first place. photo by William Lee

Judges said Chow’s creation was a pleasant surprise. Abe complimented Chow on the combination of ingredients, calling Chow’s creation a “nutty sweet cake.” Similarly Yoo complimented the use of soy flour working with the pine nuts. Rose-Rankin praised the cake’s brownie texture as well.

Chow, a food scientist, said she took an Italian Tuscany pine nut cake recipe and infused Japanese ingredients to create a fusion brownie. The cake used soy bean flour and was baked with roasted edamame, pine nuts and marsala wine. Chow explained that despite the name, the recipe contains no chocolate, and instead refers to the soft and sweet texture of the brown cake. “This is my first food competition and I’m just really excited that I won first place during my first food competition,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Engaging new leaders
In addition to serving as a fun and educational fundraiser, the festival also serves as an “important vehicle for community building and leadership development, across ethnic lines,” said Taguma.

He added that this year’s festival included help from the Japanese Community Youth Council, Cherry Blossom Alumnae, Nihonmachi Street Fair, Nikkei Student Union of University of California, Berkeley, Japanese Student Association of San Francisco State University, and volunteers from other organizations and schools. “This process of community-building and leadership development is gratifying to see, and necessary as we try to move our community forward,” he said.

For more information about the Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival, visit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *