An energetic crowd, an eclectic collection of vendors, a variety of entertainers and, most importantly, a rare sunny but not so windy day on the San Francisco Peace Plaza blessed the 11th Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival June 3 with a packed crowd of soy aficionados. The second Soy and Tofu Festival since the two-year hiatus during the pandemic, the event was back in full swing as it not only promoted its namesake soy bean-based products but San Francisco’s Japantown’s merchants as well.
“We’re excited to welcome you back here to Japantown’s Peace Plaza once again, as a gathering place to remind us, to re-inspire us and to re-energize the Japantown community right here, which is a large part to bring people back to Japantown, to help support the merchants, because these merchants made it through the pandemic, just like all of you, they made it strong thanks to all of your help,” Mike Inouye, NBC Bay Area’s weekday morning traffic anchor and co-emcee for the festival, said.
Dessert Champ Hat-Trick
The annual festival featured many of its staple attractions centered around soy, including its annual tofu dessert contest. Though this year’s contest awarded Tamako Park-Li’s third win, it was by default due to her challenger dropping out at the last minute. Park-Li, a fourth-generation San Franciscan, presented the Edamame Parfait at a VIP reception held prior to the start of the festival.
“So I wanted to make a springy, summery, fun, happy-looking dessert this year, and so really went all in on edamame,” she said.
Her Edamame Parfait featured an edamame mousse, a tofu and soy milk bottom layer, an edamame-based mizu yokan, a soy sauce granola with roasted edamame and a miso butterscotch whipped cream and candied edamame on top.
This year’s judges, Judy Kahn, owner of Kahnfections Bakery; Sally Chen, representing Stop AAPI Hate; and Ricky and Bobby Okamura, the former owners of Benkyodo Company, commended Park-Li’s Instagram-worthy creation.
“Very good. It’s sweeter than I thought it would be, which I like, and different textures with the nuts and the whipped cream on top,” Bobby Okamura said.
“The presentation is beautiful. Like the salt, and caramelized, and soy sauce flavor really comes through and it’s so delicious,” Chen said.
“I absolutely agree. It’s really well balanced. I can just eat a bowl of this granola. It’s very, very nice,” Kahn added.
Park-Li said the recipe took a few tries as she tried to do something different with soy and tofu for her third entry into the contest.
“Ever since the first contest, I’ve always been constantly thinking, ‘What can I do if I do it again, but the actual recipe testing this time took a good couple of weeks. A lot of trial and error,’” she said.
While Kahn served as judge in the morning, she was also a vendor at the festival, serving up her own baked goods.
“I have many ties to Japan and Japantown. My mother’s Japanese, so I’m half, although I don’t look it at all. And then my kids went to the JBBP (Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program) at Rosa Parks (Elementary School), so I have a connection with them, and I still, to this day, even though my kids are now 21 and 23, still help out with their fundraiser every year and provide desserts for the fundraiser,” she said.
That connection brought her to the festival to serve several special menu items, including a miso caramel bread pudding and a matcha tofu cheesecake.
Meanwhile Sharon Ku, owner of Uji Time Dessert, sold tofu and soy sauce ice cream and a tofu matcha pudding. While her brick-and-mortar shop is located just inside the East Mall next to the Peace Plaza, she joined the festival with her monthly special menu items.
“We only do it for once a month for the first weekend, and this is the Tofu Festival so we want to bring it here,” she told the Nichi Bei News. “We just want to make it fun for everyone to try our tofu creations.”
Other festival food vendor newcomers included Ohana Floral Sweets and The Pop Nation, dishing out sweet desserts of their own. Ohana Floral Sweets, a mother-daughter duo, made fancy floral ohagi mochi, while The Pop Nation sold vegan and gluten-free homemade paletas, including a Bangkok Thai-flavored popsicle.
In addition to the small businesses, the Nichi Bei Café sold inari zushi and mabo tofu. The volunteer-run kitchen led by Nichi Bei News Advertising Manager Kota Morikawa cooked up pot after pot of turkey and Impossible Pork-based mabo tofu. Riley McGuire, a second-time volunteer for the festival, said he helped make 200 servings of mabo tofu despite never having made the dish before.
“It was definitely very different, but Kota really helped me out. He just directed me on what to do and it was very enjoyable,” he said.
The tofu eating contest also returned to the festival, as contestants got on stage to scarf down a block of Mori-Nu tofu without using their hands. Dan “The Soy Boy” Brook of San Francisco took home a win during one of the contests. While his beard wasn’t an impedance to eating tofu, he said the sensation of getting tofu up his nose was “a new experience.” It was his first time participating in the contest, but he said he has loved attending the festival in the past.
“It feels great, I love soy. I love tofu. And why not? This is fantastic, what a fun festival,” he said.
While everything and anything pertaining to soy remained front and center at the festival, the Peace Plaza Stage featured a number of entertainers, including a reunion performance by Asian American jazz band Asian Crisis for the first time in eight years.
Pianist Art Hirahara said playing with his old bandmates, who have since moved all over the country, including himself to New York, was great.
“It’s like finding an old pair of jeans that you haven’t seen or worn in a long time, but putting it back on and getting used to the feeling, and then feeling great in them once you remember,” he said.
Along with Asian Crisis, Larissa Lam and Only Won returned to the stage, along with the Wesley Ukulele Band featuring 2023 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival princess Maya Isaka as one of the players, among other performers.
Inouye, joined by co-emcee Jana Katsuyama of KTVU Fox2 News, entertained the crowd throughout the day in what has become a fun tradition for them. Inouye had helped with the festival’s progenitor, a Tofu Dessert Contest held more than a decade ago, while Katsuyama emceed the first official festival.
“It’s gotten broader across not just in the region, but throughout the country. And I think it’s also raised the profile of a lot of local businesses that are doing amazing things with soy and tofu, but maybe don’t always get the recognition,” Katsuyama said of the festival.
Similarly, Inouye said soy’s growth in the mainstream was a welcome sight for him.
“These things that we had to explain 11 to 12 years ago, are now part of everybody’s common vocabulary and the vernacular and the context with which people can relate to the rest of the world,” he said.
Moreover, the sunny and calm day on the plaza buoyed the emcees and the crowd.
“This is the perfect, perfect, perfect weather for this. Sometimes it has been windy, and that’s always a challenge,” Katsuyama said in a summer kimono. “I’m glad we’re back in the Peace Plaza.
I know that there are challenges, but one of the great things about being in the Peace Plaza is that this is really the center of Japantown for so many people, and you get people who may not even know about the festival, or people who just love Japantown, but they don’t know about soy and tofu, so it’s a real way for a community to come together around this.”
A Larger Community of Supporters
Beyond the focus on food, Katie Furukawa, this year’s vendor coordinator, recruited numerous artists to sell their work on the plaza. A couple of artists, selling for the first time in a public setting, fit right in, such as Tofu Pals by Caryn Yip.
“So it was during the pandemic and I’ve always liked drawing as a hobby and I wanted to create characters that would be able to resonate with me and other Asians, and I was just thinking of what kind of characters I could create. And then I thought of tofu and how tofu is actually used in a lot of different Asian cuisines. And so I created characters that are based on eight different countries’ tofu dishes,” she said.
Food-based art and stickers boomed at the festival, including Chanamon Ratanalert’s works featuring nostalgic Asian snacks common to the Asian American experience, or Paulina Hoong’s flowers and soy sauce illustrations based on her personal history and connections to food growing up as the daughter of Chinese restaurateurs in Minnesota.
And for others, selling in Japantown was an opportunity to reconnect with the community. Olivia Leung of 011ybits sold video-game inspired pixel art and cute greeting cards. Though this was her first time selling her merchandise in Japantown, she has been around the community since 2003 when she participated in the Japanese Community Youth Council’s programs in high school.
“Japantown has always been a part of my life, and being able to come back as a vendor and provide the fun experience and different kind of art to the community of Japantown has been very fulfilling,” she told the Nichi Bei News.
Along with newcomers like Aitsuki Art, many returning vendors also set up shop at the festival, including Ben Kam of Makimino. Kam, who had been involved since the first festival, has since become instrumental to the look and feel of the festival as the designer for the event’s popular mascot Cutie Tofutti.
“Yeah, you know, I wasn’t planning to do this, or expand or become a vendor, right? So Kenji (G. Taguma, president of the Nichi Bei Foundation) was looking to make a logo and have it more family friendly, so that’s where I created all these tofu characters,” he said. “And everybody seemed to really like them, so we started incorporating all those characters along with the marketing material, and then I started creating other characters and artwork, and it just grew from there.”
The event, according to Taguma, was a success, having grown much since the first festival.
“When we started this in 2012, we were staffed with only four full-time staff equivalent(s), so it took a community to put this together,” he said. Volunteers such as the Cherry Blossom Alumnae, Nakayoshi Young Professionals and JCYC had made the event possible. He noted a portion of the funds raised through the festival will go toward JCYC’s Japantown Youth Leaders program and the Nikkei Community Internship Program.
“This has always been, to me, not only a fundraiser, but community building, leadership development, because we need to help nurture and get younger people involved in the future of Japantown, the future of this community,” he said. “It’s not going to be a small group of Japanese Americans alone that are going to keep Japantown alive for generations to come.”