June 20, 2003

Care to taste some sushi?

The first Tijuana Sushi Festival

By Mariana Martinez

Sunny Saturday is finally here.

I happily get dressed and drive to the Tijuana Cultural Center (CECUT) and walk into the very crowded Snail Garden, already daydreaming about sushi.

Snail Garden is a small space filled with trees and grass and a small amphitheater where people can forget they are in the middle of busy Tijuana day, and feel relaxed.

Snail Garden was all ‘hustle an bustle’ this day; as I see many little stands with people waiting in line, to my right the amphitheater is filled with traditional Asian dancers and right below it, there is a bonsai exhibit. This is the first Tijuana Sushi Festival.

The organizers are not Tijuana residents of Japanese decent, or the Japanese Association of Tijuana. The festival is the work of the Tijuana-Tecate Gastronomical Union (CANIRAC) and sophomore Tourism students from Baja California State University (UABC) who organized the event as part of a class by Professor Ario Estrada Gaxiola, who helped them coordinate the event.

CANIRAC president Mr. César Plasencia sees the growth of Tijuana as an opportunity for new kinds of cuisine to develop successfully in the region, and believes Tijuana is getting more sophisticated when it comes to food and opening the doors to new restaurants.

Japanese food came to Tijuana seventeen years ago, but it was perceived as expensive and unusual. People were not used to the use of raw food or small portions, but in the past three years Tijuana has been home of a “sushi renaissance” compared to the “pizza boom” in the eighties. Tijuana has quickly became a city where you can find 1-dollar sushi bars or fancy restaurants that charge $50 dollars a plate.

There is Sinaloa style sushi, with ingredients such as jalapeño peppers or hot chipotle sauce that may soon be just as common as “Mexicali style” Chinese food, and more traditional style sushi such as the one served at Sushi House, where you often see Japanese businessman having lunch, which I believe, it’s always a good sign.

As I take a stroll through the stands, I came across with story telling time with local artist Ursula Tania telling traditional Japanese stories to the enchanted kids, that followed her every move as she danced and faded while making voices of scary witches and spirits, and then, some more traditional dances that help keep the ambiance. Even though I’m no food critic, I am a sushi lover and I can venture to say the food was excellent accompanied with a glass of good wine.

The journey to this day started 2 months ago for Tourism Sophomore students, who had to plan everything from the beginning, inviting all of the sushi restaurants in the city, getting wine permits and use of the Snail Garden, they used up all their resources to make a real food festival happen, but as one of the students, Elena sees it “this was way more stressful, but more real than most classes.” She looked exhausted and happy as she sells more tickets to the incoming crowd.

It is now four o’clock and people keep pouring into the now too crowded Snail Garden.

Next, the Five Mountain martial arts school will have an exhibit of what they teach. Kids are pulling their fathers, who, after all that eating and drinking don’t seem to eager to run to a martial arts exhibit they will have to re-play at home.

The Five Mountain martial art school is one of the schools around the world who follow the teachings of Nasaki Hatsumi and offers karate classes, kick boxing, aikido, yoga and ninjutsu, the art of being a ninja.

Fathers who where slowly walking towards the amphitheater are now full of excitement as they see the staged fights and falls.

One of the hardest goals to achieve was to organize an event for the whole family to enjoy, so the students got eight restaurants to participate and talked to traditional dancers, bonsai experts, story tellers and martial arts schools around the city to get the festival going, the idea was not to profit just the participating restaurants but to promote the industry as a whole and create a yearly event.

They where expecting about 500 people for the festival, that started at noon and planed to end it by five in the afternoon. But they got a response that doubled their expectations and by four thirty many restaurants had no food left and many chefs where improvising dishes –with left over ingredients– to please the crowd.

Mr. César Plasencia is smiling suspiciously as I ask him, is there going to be another festival? Definitely – he answers- maybe next year we can use the Snail Garden again, but hopefully two years from now, we’ll need a bigger place for the new Tijuana taste.

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