Foodex offers a taste of the culinary future

The Japan News
Samples of Nikuvege brand plant-based hamburger steak, with soymilk-based cream filling, are presented by Sojitz Foods Corp. on March 8 at the Foodex Japan 2023 trade show at the Tokyo Big Sight convention center in Koto Ward, Tokyo.

The enticing aroma of beef on a grill drew a crowd to the Canadian pavilion at the Foodex Japan 2023 trade show this month at the Tokyo Big Sight convention center in Koto Ward, Tokyo.

Billed as the largest annual food trade show in Asia, this year’s Foodex recorded daily visitor numbers totaling 74,000 from March 7 to 10. It was a chance to sample some of the newest food products on the Japanese market — as well as others that may appear in the future.

Canada was one of 60 countries and regions participating in the event, where 1,584 foreign companies plus 916 Japanese ones had registered to display their wares. Having sampled a delicious slice of meat, with just enough fat for a succulent mouthfeel, I can say this: Canada raises good beef.

However, since livestock agriculture is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, I was also curious to see what sort of alternatives might be on offer.

There were many.

Plant-based meat, fish, cheese

The juicy tenderness of a perfectly grilled steak is difficult to replicate, but meat products come in many other textures — and so do their vegetable substitutes.

“Vegan jerky has been around, especially in Malaysia and Taiwan, for many, many years. It’s not that high a tech to make it. You take strips of soy meat … and you flavor them up and dry them out,” said John Bayles, the CEO of Alishan, a Saitama Prefecture-based importer of organic and vegan foods.

Among Alishan’s products on display at Foodex was O’natural brand vegan jerky from Taiwan. I tasted some, and especially liked the Szechuan pepper flavor. It had the same tough, chewy texture as jerky made from animal meat.

“People don’t need to become vegan or vegetarian. What they need to do is think about their personal health, the ecological cost and the karmic aspect of an animal has to die for you. With those things, I suggest eating less meat,” Bayles said.

Eating less meat “moves the carbon footprint of food production in the right direction,” he said.

Ground meat is another texture that can be successfully replicated with plant products. Sojitz Foods Corp. offers a number of such products under the Nikuvege brand. I tasted two different kinds of hamburger steak, one of which had a “cream sauce” filling made with soy milk.

Ippei Ooba, a Sojitz senior staff member, told me these products have been sold through hotels and restaurants so far, with retail versions to appear in stores this year.

He expected the waning of the pandemic to boost sales, as inbound tourists have been a significant source of demand. According to a Sojitz handout, the United States had a “vegetable meat replacement rate of 2.7% in 2020,” and Japan is expected to reach that same level around 2025.

“For hamburger steaks and minced meat, the quality difference (in taste, texture and flavor) between meat and plant-based meat is already small, and the price difference from beef is small, so the shift to plant-based meat will be fast,” the handout states.

It acknowledged that “single pieces of meat” such as steak present a greater challenge.

Perhaps that challenge can be overcome. Azuma Foods Co. showed amazing ingenuity with its plant-based seafood, including visually convincing “shrimp.” Allergic to real shrimp, I passed up the chance to sample those. (A placebo allergic reaction would have been embarrassing.)

However, I did try a little of the plant-based salmon sashimi. The texture was a bit firmer than real salmon, but it came impressively close.

Azuma official Yoshihiro Sugiura told me that soybeans and konnyaku are among the major ingredients. Azuma also makes plant-based squid and minced fatty tuna (as one might find in negitoro sushi) that includes plant-based oil to give it the right texture, he said.

Sugiura said inbound tourists who request vegan meals account for some of the current demand, but Japanese people still prefer real seafood. However, he added that people all over the world are concerned about sustainability, and plant-based fish is one way to address that.

Cheese is another area in which textures are a challenge. In my limited experience with vegan cheeses, I’ve found them unpleasantly oily.

However, that was definitely not a problem with the samples offered by Dutch cheesemaker Willicroft. I tried a firm, crumbly cube of their Greek White, which Willicroft cofounder Margot Vandevoort told me was their alternative to feta. I also tried some Young Dutch, their alternative to Gouda, melted on toast.

Both of these cheeses are made with white beans, Vandevoort said. The company’s website also lists coconut oil and potato starch among the main ingredients. She said their products further include Italian Aged, a Parmesan alternative made with cashew nuts, and two sauces, one made with lentils and the other with chickpeas.

She said the Greek White has “five times less emissions than a dairy cattle [cheese] would have.” Eliminating livestock accounts for part of that difference, but she said that they went even further by applying a Dutch idiom, “Meten is weten,” which means “Measuring is knowing.”

“As soon as we start measuring our CO2 emissions, we understand where we can find some further gains to drop that footprint down,” she said, citing as an example their comparison of emissions levels between different sources of beans.

The Japan News
Will Bray of sauce maker Curtice Brothers presents a varied palette of ketchups and other sauces at Foodex Japan.

Old favorites, new forms

Another bean-based product was instant Protein Noodles from South Korean company The PlantEat Inc. The company’s Jay Kim said the noodles are 99.6% soybeans, plus a little salt. Unlike some other instant noodles, they are not fried, Kim said, meaning they are high in protein and low in calories. They come with five different sauces, including truffle mushroom and keema curry.

The PlantEat was looking for an importer for Japan, as were many other foreign companies. They included sauce maker Curtice Brothers, which was holding ketchup taste tests at the Austrian pavilion.

Will Bray, the company’s China-based CEO for Asia, squirted some of “the market leader” — you’d recognize it — onto a paper plate and handed me a spoon. It was fire-engine red and very sweet.

This product, he said, consists of about 25% sugar, depending on the market. (The leader’s U.S. website indicates 23.5% by weight.)

“Ours is 11% sugar and 77% tomato,” he said. A squirt of Curtice Brothers ketchup was visibly thicker and darker. It had a less sweet, more complex flavor, with a faint peppery bite, and comes in several varieties, including chili ketchup and curry ketchup. The paper plate began to look like the palette of an artist going through a Red Period.

Bray said their sauces are served at many European hotels, where they are trying to create a public mentality that ketchup should be something to consciously pair with food.

“A lot of the executive chefs at hotels spend such a lot of time sourcing great ingredients … free-range ethically raised meat, great cheeses, they home-bake their bread, maybe they get special Dutch potatoes to make home french fries — and then it goes on the table and it gets covered in 25% sugar,” Bray said. “We think that there’s a better way of preserving that gourmet experience.”

Sardines were another seemingly humble ingredient to get a moment in the spotlight. The Latvian pavilion featured jars from a company called Amberfish in which the sardines have a golden tint because they are smoked over beechwood. I enjoyed tasting some on crackers, but a translator at the pavilion waxed rhapsodic as she suggested eating the Baltic sea fish with cold boiled potatoes and fresh dill: “Dill is a Latvian thing. Dill goes in everything, absolutely everything.”

A new taste I enjoyed at the pavilion of Latvia’s neighbor Estonia was Dago Seaberries, the small, tart fruit of a thorny tree called sea buckthorn. The orange berries had a real wake-you-up flavor. I was told they can be covered in honey, sprinkled over ice cream or pureed to be added to yogurt. In other words, they could be served from breakfast to dessert.

Assuming, of course, that a full day at Foodex leaves you with room for dessert.

The Japan News
Egor Grabar and his wife Daria promote their fruity kombucha drinks at Foodex Japan.

Tickling the taste buds and muddling the lexicon

Foodex wasn’t just about food. Novel drinks at the show included sweet shochu made from Hawaiian taro root in Kagoshima Prefecture, and even sweeter watermelon cider from a winery in New Jersey.

The most interesting drink I sipped was Rudy’s Kombucha from Latvia.

“It’s a fermented tea-based drink,” explained Egor Grabar, who cofounded Rudy’s with his wife, Daria. (They named the company after their pet dachshund.) “It’s a mixture of tea, water, fruit and a symbiotic culture of bacteria. They’re basically like yeast, lactic acid bacteria and vinegar bacteria, which are living together in one vessel and producing the drink.”

Wait a minute. Isn’t “kombucha” just “kelp tea” in Japanese? The answer is yes, but the word has a different meaning in English. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, offering a definition similar to Grabar’s, dates the English term back to 1944 and suggests it originated as a “misapplication” of the Japanese word.

The reputedly healthful product comes in many flavors made with different fruit purees, but with no added sugar or colorings. The rhubarb kombucha was slightly fizzy and lightly sour — quite different from the salty Japanese seaweed kombucha I tried a few days later. The mango and passion fruit variety was even nicer.

Then there was the guava variety of “hard kombucha,” which is 5% alcohol by volume. It was delicious.

Rudy’s Kombucha comes in attractively colorful cans, but they also make small sachets of concentrate that would take up less retail shelf space and thus, they hope, boost their chances of getting into Japanese stores.

One drink that will debut in Japanese stores this year is Hawaiian Paradise Coffee. It’s served in many major hotels in Hawaii, and is presumably enjoyed by Japanese tourists. It will be available in this country via Aeon’s Caferrant import corner starting at the end of March, according to Hawaiian Paradise representative Koichi Hozumi.

He offered fragrant samples of a 10% Kona blend, meaning that 10% of the beans come from the Kona district on the Big Island of Hawaii. “The remaining 90%, depending on the season, we match with some other regions like Brazil or Colombia.”

But why just 10%?

“Climate change has been affecting us, so the production amount in Kona has declined,” Hozumi said.

His comment was a reminder that every company whose business is based on growing plants is vulnerable to climate change. And in the food business, that means every company there is.