It was an assignment straight out of a celebrity-chef smackdown on TV. Take 13 ingredients, create four killer dishes, and serve up bites and sips to food-industry professionals gathered in Toyko, all hungry for the next big thing.
“It was a huge undertaking,” says Jason Ball, recalling how he had to prep his dishes a day early in an unfamiliar restaurant kitchen, observed by curious Japanese chefs. “Until I was dealing with the interpreter in that kitchen, I hadn’t fully realized the effort it would take.”
But when Ball unveiled his samples the next day at FOODEX, Asia’s largest food-industry trade show, they disappeared fast. Food buyers, chefs, wholesalers, and restaurateurs from Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea came by his booth in the USA Pavilion to sample his wares, representing the quality and variety of products made and sold in the western U.S.: black-bean salad and Oregon berries pickled in rice vinegar; lemonade with fresh Oregon cranberries and preserved Oregon black cherries; a gummy snack made with Oregon blueberry-laced mochi rice; and crackers with a fruit spread made with raisins, dates and Oregon cranberries.
Ball is head research chef at OSU’s Food Innovation Center (FIC). In March, he traveled to Tokyo to attend FOODEX with FIC director Dave Stone and two international-trade experts from the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Their mission was to show off the rich agricultural bounty of the U.S. West to the FOODEX 82,000-plus attendees.
OSU’s participation was made possible by funding from the Western United States Agricultural Trade Association. WUSATA uses Market Access Program (MAP) funds through USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service to partner with 13 Western states’ agriculture departments to help farmers and food processors export their products worldwide. WUSATA represented 13 U.S. food companies at FOODEX, including four from Oregon.
For his “Best of the West” demonstration, Ball created Western-style foods with a Japanese flair. “Our goal was not only to showcase our ingredients but also show people how to use them,” he says. “And to do it in a way that wouldn’t be totally foreign to Japanese palates.”
His bean salad included yuzu juice—yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit—which lent a touch of sweetness to the pickled berries. His lemonade (a beverage unfamiliar in Japan, he learned) was garnished with a leaf of shiso, a Japanese herb similar to basil, lending a green note to the piquancy of lemon and fresh cranberries sweetened with black-cherry preserves.
Japan is Oregon’s biggest agricultural products customer, says Theresa Yoshioka, the ODA trade manager who helped arrange WUSATA funding for Ball’s visit. Wheat and forage top the list. Specialty crops like blueberries and cherries are also prized by Japanese consumers.
“When I say I’m from the WUSATA region and Oregon in particular,” says Yoshioka, “they say, ‘Ah! Blueberries!’ We export a lot of high-quality blueberries to Japan.”
Other crops are less familiar to Japanese palates—fresh cranberries, for one. That’s why demonstrations like Jason Ball’s are so important, says Yoshioka. “As we share with Japan and the rest of Asia the knowledge of our great ingredients and how to use them, it can only increase our sales and opportunities.”
“This is a true partnership between ODA and OSU,” adds FIC director Stone. “That was the intent of the Food Innovation Center to start with, and it’s great to see that partnership growing.”