Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
As Andy Warhol said in 1968, “In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.” Well, my time in the spotlight lasted a little more than 15 minutes. Actually, it lasted for two 30-minute sessions at the eighth annual Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival.
If you didn’t already know, besides this The Hawai‘i Herald column, I also pen a monthly column for the Nichi Bei Weekly, which was originally a daily newspaper known as the Nichi Bei Times. It was published in Japanese and English to keep Northern California’s Japanese American community connected after the people’s release from the internment camps. Some 15 years ago, I started writing a monthly column on food, nutrition and wine for the then-Nichi Bei Times, and actually increased my columns to twice a month for about a year.
In 2009, however, the owners decided to cease publishing the Nichi Bei Times due to declining circulation and increasing costs. The paper’s senior editor, Kenji Taguma, decided to turn the Nichi Bei Times into the Nichi Bei Weekly, operated by the nonprofit Nichi Bei Foundation. Its mission was to keep the Asian American community connected though the Nichi Bei Weekly.
Sometime after becoming a nonprofit, Taguma created the Soy and Tofu Festival as an annual fundraiser for the Nichi Bei Weekly. The event features soy and tofu education, food vendors, a soy and tofu dessert recipe contest and live entertainment. Since its start, Kenji has wanted me to judge the dessert contest and to also represent the Weekly as its resident food columnist. One issue kept that from happening: It required that I fly to San Francisco, and the Nichi Bei Foundation didn’t have the luxury of paying for my ticket. This year, however, the Mrs. and I scheduled our vacation to coincide with the festival.
The Soy and Tofu Dessert Competition
It isn’t an Iron Chef competition by any means, but the competitors in the Soy and Tofu Dessert Competition are hardly nobodies. They are home economists and professional bakers.
The dessert competition has one simple rule: All recipes must contain a soy product as one of the top three ingredients by weight. Also, each semifinalist must prepare 60 1-ounce samples for the audience and five full samples for the five judges. Three semifinalists are normally selected; this year, however, a fourth was added to the competition. They turned out to be:
• Eri Combs, a professional baker, who named her creation, Berry Tofu Cheesecake;
• Jennifer Hasegawa, an information architect whose creation was called Soy Cream Pan with Kinako Swirl;
• Kim Guess, a dietician, created a Triple Tofu Black Forest Trifle; and
• Akimi Furutani, a creator, concocted what she called Tofu Big Wave.
The judges, along with yours truly, were Henry Hsu of Hodo Foods; Linda Harms Okazaki, past president of the California Genealogical Society; Russell Jeung, Asian American Studies director at San Francisco State University; and Laarnie Bercilla Carlos, chef/owner of Royalicing.
After each semifinalist had taken the stage and described the inspiration for their respective creation, we all sampled their recipe interspersed with comments from the judges. Since I represented the Nichi Bei Weekly and was the only panelist who had traveled 2,500 miles, it seems that the emcees focused primarily on me.
Kim Guess used tofu in her cake, including in the chocolate and vanilla creams piped between the cake layers. The vanilla and chocolate cream and the sour cherry nicely balanced the rich flavors of the chocolate cake and two creams.
Past winner and multiple-time semifinalist Akimi Furutani created a most visually stunning dessert that mimicked Hokusai’s “Wave” woodblock print. I’m not a big fan of kinako, but Furutani’s cake was nice and moist with a pleasant roasted soybean flavor balanced with the rich matcha cream.
Jennifer Hasegawa’s soy cream-filled bun had a nice, chewy exterior with a rich cream filling. The sugar syrup glaze made it a bit difficult for mustached judges to consume, however.
Finally, Eri Combs’ cheesecake had a rich mouth feel, like traditional cheesecake balanced with both fresh and cooked strawberry flavors.
In the end, however, there could be only one winner. My vote and that of my fellow judges gave the crown to Kim Guess for her Triple Tofu Black Forest Trifle.
My Cooking “Demonstration”
I initially proposed creating my Natto Miso Caramel on Natto Chocolate Rice Pudding to Kenji. He didn’t sound very enthusiastic about all those fermented soybeans. But, about two weeks before the festival, he asked me about the natto. He also mentioned that he wasn’t sure what cooking device would be available at the venue, St Mary’s Cathedral, and that I would only have about 20 to 30 minutes to cook my dish.
Since we were “on vacation” and I was looking forward to bringing home some good wines from Napa Valley, the last thing I wanted to do was ship back pots, pans and induction cooktops. So, I decided to make two versions of my soy milk custard — a chocolate one and a vanilla one.
I packed 70 3-ounce sample cups along with simple ingredients that I knew my brother wouldn’t have in his pantry — I planned to purchase the soy milk and fresh fruit in San Francisco. That almost turned into a disaster, because although San Francisco stores stock both chocolate and vanilla soy milk, I almost had to purchase chocolate almond milk in place of soy milk, as the Mill Valley Whole Foods didn’t have any chocolate soy milk. I finally found it at a Safeway, although only in 8-ounce containers — I needed 64 ounces for the audience samples. Although a mango sauce would have been perfect with the vanilla soy milk custard, the only mangoes sold in the Bay Area are from Mexico, which taste nothing like mangoes from Hawai‘i.
For any soy milk custard, the ratio of soy milk to gelatin is the same: 2 cups of soy milk to 2 teaspoons of powdered gelatin. In order to get that perfect custard texture, you have to first mix the powdered gelatin with a little bit of liquid to create a loose paste. Next, add it to the soy milk and heat gently, unless you’re trying to make flavored tofu. Make sure also that the gelatin dissolves completely in the soy milk.
Vanilla Soy Milk Custard
2 cups vanilla soy milk
2 teaspoons powdered gelatin
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 vanilla bean split lengthwise with seeds scraped out — just add the vanilla seeds
1 teaspoon light rum
2 tablespoons agave syrup
Diced kiwi fruit, strawberry and blueberries
Chocolate Soy Milk Custard
2 cups chocolate soy milk
2 teaspoons powdered gelatin
1 teaspoon Kahlua
1 teaspoon Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur)
1 tablespoon dark cocoa powder (I use Valrhona)
2 tablespoons agave syrup
I mix the liquor/vanilla/agave or liquor/cocoa powder/agave with the gelatin first and form a loose paste. I then add it to the soy milk and gently heat it over medium, occasionally whisking the mixture until no gelatin granules can be seen. Being able to touch the outside of the pan for a second or two is how you can tell that your pan isn’t too hot. Pour into serving cups or bowls and refrigerate overnight. Garnish with the fresh fruit. They also pair nicely with fruit sauces or fruit sorbets.
Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”