Celebrating the joy of soy: Creative talent abounds on stage, in food, and in art

2024 Cherry Blossom Queen Court participate in a tofu eating contest. photo by William Lee

Cutie Tofutti. photo by William Lee

Throngs of soy fans filled the Event Center at Saint Mary’s Cathedral just outside San Francisco’s Japantown for the 12th annual Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival June 22. The annual food-based festival this year also emphasized community leadership building and the arts alongside its annual appreciation of the “Joy of Soy.”

With the Peace Plaza in San Francisco’s Japantown under renovation since May, the annual fundraiser for the Nichi Bei Foundation returned to the cathedral two blocks away. While the year’s event wasn’t located at the busy center of Japantown, thousands still came out to fill the event center, which featured four halls with two entertainment stages and more than a dozen food vendors, according to organizers.

Festival adds Youth Art Contest
The festival introduced the Soy-Ful Youth Art Contest this year, featuring 78 entries from 12 states. The contest celebrates the cultural significance and versatility of soy and tofu. Natsumi Inoue, the contest’s coordinator, said she was grateful that Japanese arts supply company Yasutomo sponsored the inaugural contest.

“Never had I thought this would get any sort of sponsorship in year one, and I am forever grateful to Yasutomo for sponsoring the cash prizes AND the festival goodie bags,” Inoue said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei News.

The contest asked entrants to “celebrate the diversity and cultural importance of soy and tofu through youth art” and accepted entries from youth in grades kindergarten through 12. Kindergartners through fifth graders were asked to draw a Soy & Tofu Super Hero, while the sixth through 12th graders drew a picture illustrating healthy eating.

Inoue said she was inspired by the Lunar New Year Art exhibition in San Jose earlier this year. Visiting the exhibit and seeing submissions from younger artists encouraged Inoue to start creating art again.

She said the contest was her way to thank the young artists who reignited her passion for traditional art.

Inoue displayed the contest finalists’ artwork during the festival and said the exhibit had a healthy turnout in the quieter Hall A, featuring origami and coloring activities.

“Visitors were very engaged, exploring every piece with great enthusiasm. We were also thrilled to see five of our finalists attending the festival with their families. It was such a pleasure meeting our young artists, and we can’t thank them enough for sharing their creativity with the community,” she said.

Koyasan Spirit of Children Taiko. photo by William Lee

Beyond the art contest, the festival returned with a slate of entertainers and food demonstrations. Gee Yung Lion and Dragon Dance Association returned to kick off the festival from the main stage while Sacramento Taiko Dan followed up with a performance and a hands-on taiko playing experience with audience members. Additionally, dance groups Sakura Ren and Eclipse, along with musical artists Koyasan Spirit of Children Taiko and multicultural Kulintaiko performed on the main stage, which NBC Bay Area Weekday Morning Traffic Anchor Mike Inouye and Sacramento Asian Pacific Cultural Village co-founder Jason Jong emceed. Additionally, a cappella group MEaN kicked things off at the Community Stage, followed by the Koto Yuki Band.

Foodie Fest
The food, however, took center stage in the soy-focused event and festivalgoers enjoyed watching and participating in bouts of tofu-eating contests (including this year’s Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Court) and cooking demonstrations by Henry Hsu and Kota Morikawa.

Nichi Bei Foundation’s Morikawa demystified the stinky, sticky fermented soy bean dish natto, while Hsu, a consultant for Hodo Foods, demonstrated how to use their new soy-based dips. Additionally, Hsu taught attendees of a workshop how to make tofu, discussing the differences in how it is made in China versus Japan and also showing how yuba is made and sharing the “happy accident” tofu makers discovered when Chinese black vinegar added to thickened soy milk created a soothing and comforting soup perfect for breakfasts.

Henry Hsu Hodo. photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

Beyond the live programming, food vendors also took center stage at the festival. The Nichi Bei Café returned this year selling mabo tofu and inari sushi, along with a variety of food products from sponsor vendors Hodo Soy, Bachan’s Japanese Barbecue Sauce, Kikkoman and Morinaga, as well as a number of vendors offering plant-based proteins donated by Impossible Foods. Pine United Methodist Church returned to the festival to serve their Wafu Dogs, usually sold during the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival.

“This year, we received a donation of Impossible hot dogs from the Impossible Foods, and they taste much better than the soy dogs that we were using in prior years,” Edie Moriguchi, a church member, said.

Along with Pine United Methodist Church, the Buddhist Church of San Francisco and the Konko Church of San Francisco also joined the festival this year to serve Impossible Curry and Bachan’s Impossible Burger. While the Buddhist Church has been serving curry with Impossible beef at community festivals for years now, the Konko Church wanted to expand from their popular imagawayaki confections they normally sell at their events and the Cherry Blossom Festival. The Rev. Rodney Yano said they had a good deal, offering a restaurant quality burger using Impossible meat and Bachan’s sauce.

Bachan’s Impossible Burger. photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

“We’re using brioche buns, Kewpie mayonnaise, iceberg lettuce, organic tomatoes. It’s good ingredients,” he said. “It’s a lot cheaper than the stores, because some stores sell Impossible burgers for over $15,” he said. Konko Church donated all their proceeds from the day to the Nichi Bei Foundation.

Meanwhile Nobumi Silver said she was glad to serve her temple’s curry, a recently developed staple for their annual bazaar.

“Everyone is really excited to be able to have more soy and tofu-based products at the Bazaar especially, because in past years, we had trouble making vegetarian dishes. So this is a good opportunity for us and then we’re really excited to be able to bring it here and sell it to everybody,” she said.

Additionally, returning vendors such as Nombe served Shoyu Ramenburgers and festivalgoers also enjoyed something sweet after all the savory, with desserts from Uji Time Dessert, The Pop Nation, Jade Chocolates and Mume Farms.

And while many of the vendors were returning, Adelita’s Antojitos, a new pupuseria developed out of San Francisco nonprofit La Cocina, featured vegan pupusas using soy chorizos and a soy-based horchata, which both sold out by the end of the day.

“We thought it would be a cool opportunity to share that Mexican and Salvadoran food is easily adaptable to vegan options, or tofu and soy,” Alejandra Arenas, who helps run the start-up, said. “And people have received it pretty well.”

Artisan Vendors
Alongside the food vendors, a number of artisan vendors selling anything from food (including soy)-inspired keychains and pins to Asian American focused vendors such as sai.chee studio and bookbinder Link & Page, sold their wares throughout the three halls. Some even brought a flair of soy specifically for the festival, such as W House SF, selling crocheted tofu dolls, or soy-based cat keychains from vendor Minomino. Others such as The Creative Space and On Waverly are rooted in Asian American culture and aesthetics, while craft artisans such as Judy Mui of ChibiJay Designs and A Miyako M Illustrations’ Addi Miyako sold pieces inspired by Japanese culture. Others, such as Kickstarted-card game Just Add Oil sold a game that helps people learn modern phrases in Mandarin, while Cloverleafpie offered a dose of kawaii that even adults can enjoy.

“I’m really excited that we were able to showcase a wide variety of different types of both food cuisines and crafts this year,” Katie Furukawa Bonifacio, the festival’s vendor coordinator, said.

Furukawa Bonifacio rethought the vendors for the festival as it moved to the cathedral’s event center, but was pleased to hear several vendors were grateful for the opportunity and pleasantly surprised by the turnout. She said beyond the vendors, she also enjoyed the festival’s programming, noting the Asian American Food Panel was interesting.

The festival this year added a second community stage, emceed by Nichi Bei Foundation board member Yuki Nishimura, in addition to its main stage to feature additional entertainment and a panel discussion with Angelina Hong, founder of marketing agency Gourmand Group, and Marissa Macayan, manager of programs and operations at Kapwa Gardens. Festival committee member Julian Avenilla moderated the discussion.

“That was really fun for me to see. Kind of something different for the festival too, because it was a little bit more of a conversation rather than a performance where you get to absorb it, but don’t get to interact,” Furukawa Bonifacio said.

While the festival is a fundraiser at heart, Kenji G. Taguma, president of the Nichi Bei Foundation, said it is also a vehicle for community and leadership-building.

“We’ve had some younger members of our committee come up with fresh ideas, from our amazing inaugural Soy-Ful Youth Art Contest orchestrated by Natsumi Inoue or an Asian American Food Panel envisioned by our former Nikkei Community Intern Julian Avenilla. Add to that the leadership of our vendor coordinator Katie Furukawa Bonifacio, and we’ve had our most expansive iteration of the event yet,” he said.

“It’s moving to see the community come together for a common purpose. We’re only limited by our own creativity, and as we celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Nichi Bei Foundation,” Taguma said, “… It’s great to see such creative energy continue.”

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