Creating Holiday Unity
Winners of annual Thanksgiving recipe challenge combine cultures to create new dish for the holiday table
The first time Satoko Haji experienced an American Thanksgiving, she wasn’t sure what gravy was.
“I poured gravy on something I shouldn’t have put it on. It was so terrible,” she said. “There were so many foods. People were talking, drinking, eating. It was just overwhelming.”
The Fukuoka, Japan, native has come a long way since that first holiday meal in the United States. Now a junior in the University of Idaho’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Haji, 29, and her classmate Katie Akin, 21, are the winners of the 2017 Thanksgiving recipe development contest sponsored each year by the Office of the Donor Relations and Stewardship and the Margaret Ritchie School of Family and Consumer Sciences. The winning recipe is featured on a holiday card sent to donors from the Office of the President.
The recipe the two dietetics majors developed is a blend of traditional American and Japanese dishes, in keeping with this year’s “Vandal Unity” recipe theme. Akin and Haji created Vandal Sweet Potato Mash: roasted sweet potatoes mixed with baked honeycrisp apples, pecans and a balsamic brown sugar sauce. The result is a sweet but tangy side dish that could complement any holiday meal.
Brainstorming for the dish started with the contest challenge. Each fall, students in the Coordinated Program in Dietetics, taught by CALS senior instructor Katie Miner, are challenged to create a new recipe along a theme chosen by U of I first lady Mary Beth Staben. This year, Staben challenged the teams to create recipes around a “unity” theme: combining uncommon ingredients.
Both apples and sweet potatoes are common at the Thanksgiving table, of course, but the combination isn’t usually American. Haji said they are commonly eaten together in Japan, however.
Coming to America
Haji first came to the United States in 2008 through the Japanese Agricultural Training Program. She spent 18 months as an intern at a farm in Moses Lake, Washington. After returning to Japan, Haji worked for three years as an agriculture instructor, but she wasn’t done learning.
“In Japan, I was working as an instructor, I worked with the vegetable farmers,” Haji said. “They are trying to produce quality vegetables but people — even the Japanese people — they don’t eat as much vegetables as they used to. Consumers want to buy more processed foods. Younger generations don’t know how to cook vegetables.”
Haji knows it’s a pattern that’s not healthy for her country, or for the farmers with whom she’s been working. So, she returned to the U.S. to study at U of I and earn a degree in nutrition.
Passionate about Nutrition
Originally from Colville, Washington, Akin and her family moved to Moscow when she was in high school. When she was young, Akin’s family had to change its eating patterns to help her father balance his cholesterol. She saw the impact of food on health, and has been interested in working in the medical profession ever since.
“I started looking for a career that suited my talents and interest, and I found dietetics,” Akin said. “It’s such a great balance between the hardcore sciences — like anatomy and physiology and biochemistry, but then we get to do stuff like this where we get to create recipes. It’s been really fun.”
Akin and her family enjoy a traditional American Thanksgiving each year, with turkey and all the trimmings. She is in charge of the pies, but also tries to convince her mom to make the recipes just a little more healthy.
“I do a lot of negotiating about the ingredients used,” Akin said with a laugh. “Do we really need the marshmallows? What about the bacon? Do we need two pounds of bacon? Can we maybe have one pound of bacon in the green beans?”
Finding a Balance
Developing the recipe took a lot of trial and error, as neither Akin nor Haji eat sweet food on a regular basis, so they had to find taste-testers to make sure their creations had enough sugar and fat. It took about six weeks of back-and-forth to master the sweet potato mash.
In Japan, Haji is used to using rice vinegar and sugar to create a reduction sauce, so they brainstormed doing something similar to create the balsamic sauce. The sauce adds depth to the recipe, but has one downside: “The smell from the pan as it’s evaporating is really bad,” Akin said.
They were both surprised their recipe won from the field of delicious creations. Eight teams competed altogether, creating chocolate lava cookies that used mashed potatoes, chocolate yam soufflé, an autumn bisque, cocoa-rubbed pork tenderloin, and a nod to apple pie that uses jicama and Chai tea.
“I didn’t expect to win,” Haji said. “Everyone’s dishes looked so delicious.”
All of the recipes, including previous years’ creations, are available online at uidaho.edu/tday-recipes.
Article by Savannah Tranchell, University Communications and Marketing