Monday, August 20, 2007

Tofu Festival, Little Tokyo


Man, was it hot in downton this weekend! The heat did not deter thousands of people from flocking to the tofu festival in Little Tokyo though. It may be my imagination but having not attended the festival in probably 5 years, it seems the crowd has more than doubled and the space has diminished.

Other than the non-vegetarian dishes, the majority of the festival food offerings were mundane. Where I had hoped to find creative uses for and transformations of tofu, I saw the usual substitution of tofu for pick your protein choice in Pad Thai and fried rice and deep fried skewers (often wrongly defined as tofu Satay when served with peanut sauce). Tofu, after all is the perfect flavorless sponge that can simulate meat, dairy or pasta or can be elevated in its simplest, freshest form through artisinal production. Garlic ice cream and other revelations (not all of them worked) at the Garlic Festival years ago come to mind.

The culinary highlight was the tofu okonomiyaki. Advertised as a Japanese pizza, it is more like a Japanese pancake. I've eaten it in restaurants devoted to okonomiyaki (do it yourself at your table's built-in griddle) but it is fraught with vegetarian land mines. Just about anything in the fridge can go into the batter and finding one free of some type of meat, bonito or suspicious sauce is a feat. Common ingredients are: flour, grated yam (air potato), dashi, cabbage, egg, pork, shrimp, squid, octopus, cheese, noodles, etc.

As was evidenced by the long lines formed At the Otafuku Foods booth, the Kansai style okonomiyaki full of veggies (carrots, corn, fresh soy beans) and of course tofu was one of the most promising offerings at the festival. After being grilled on both sides, the pancake was topped with the standard accompaniments, okonomiyaki sauce (kind of like barbecue sauce) and mayonnaise. I was assured by the servers at the booth (and in the festival program) that the okonomiyaki was vegetarian but upon subsequent reserach, I found that Otafuku Foods produces bottled sauces, all of which except for the vinegar have some of sort of animal extract. The okonomiyaki sauce has oyster extract. I ate it unkowingly and would have never suspected- not a hint of the sea.

Vegetarians beware, the tofu festival tries to cater to vegetarians but vegetarianism isn't as clearly defined in Japanese culture as in some other Buddhist or Hindu nations. The Tokyo Table restaurant's booth sold chicken terriyaki pizza and "tofu hamburgers." These burgers were constructed relegating tofu to be employed as a kind of Hamburger Helper mixed into ground beef.

The green curry tofu with Thai eggplant at the Thai Tofu Nirvana booth was spicy and creamy over perfectly textured grains of soft yet chewey rice.

LL Bakery sold their bread and pasta made with tofu.

The Gamma Epsilon Omega fraternity at USC sold Dangos (fried donut balls on a skewer) with soymilk.

I was disappointed to find that Sawees Gourment Food (company that sells Malaysian Peanut sauce) had sold out of the Laksa tofu bowl (spicy noodle soup usually with curry) since vegetarian Laksa is rare. The Korean BCD Tofu booth sold vegetarian tofu sushi and Bibimbap.

The Curry House booth offered tofu keema curry rice which substituted the usual meat in Japanese curry with ground soy meat, a nice vegetarian twist on a kind of curry bolognese. I don't know if they offer this vegetarin option at their restaurant but I'm not such a fan of the brown thick sweet Japanese version of curry. The Japanese curry mixes sold in grocery stores usually have some sort of non-vegetarian ingredient in the curry powder.

The church of Perfect Liberty, a Japan based religion formed post WWII which emphasizes life as art (can't find fault with that) sold tofu tostadas, which looked refreshing with tofu, tomatoes, cilantro and onions piled on top of a crispy tortilla and yet not unique enough for me to get.

I cooled off with a $1 non-alchoholic tofu margarita which was essentially limeade blended with tofu to give a milky appearance and texture.

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