Transforming Hakodate produce into novel food creations

For the second year running, students from the NUS Department of Food Science and Technology (FST) have created novel food products in collaboration with food businesses from Hakodate, a city in southern Hokkaido, Japan. Two standout innovations, flavoured natto crackers and pumpkin cream puffs, were developed during the Food Product Development and Packaging module at FST. The module offers students an opportunity to employ scientific inquiry and ingenuity to bring to life original, commercially viable food products that meld distinctively Japanese ingredients with local food preferences.

“We looked for meaningful projects with Hakodate City. For example, we explored opportunities to diversify our source of foods especially if there are ingredients that are sustainable and help with Singapore’s nutrition security. We also sought out chances to use by-products or increase the value of raw ingredients,” said Dr Leong Lai Peng, a senior lecturer at NUS FST who leads the module.

“This year, Hakodate City decided to continue this valuable partnership with NUS FST as we consider ASEAN a highly promising market and would like to promote product development, in line with local needs and standards. We were encouraged by how FST students were able to value add to the participating businesses last year. The companies were able to gather direct feedback from the local students and were able to obtain ideas that the Japanese might not have thought of,” said Ms Tanaka Maiko, Food Developer Manager for the Food Industry Promotion Section of the Economy Department of Hakodate city.

Students taking this year’s module partnered Yamadai Foods Processing Co and Kadou Foods, which are food manufacturing companies from Hakodate, a port city known for its marine and land produce. Yamadai Foods, a century-old manufacturer of okazu — or everyday Japanese side dishes — chose their own-brand natto as the hero ingredient for the project, while Kadou Foods, a small manufacturer of largely handmade sweets and delicatessen, decided on Yukigeshou pumpkins, a local pumpkin variety used in their products.

Natto crackers: Blending the unfamiliar and familiar

When Mr Seah Yao Xuan’s team first learned that natto would be the ingredient at the heart of their product, they were understandably apprehensive. After all, the distinctly Japanese product made from fermented soybeans was one that, according to the team’s extensive consumer research, 70 per cent of Singaporeans were unacquainted with. In addition, research also revealed polarising responses to the product.

“Making natto appealing to consumers outside Japan was an uphill battle due to its unique taste, texture and smell,” said Yao Xuan, a third-year FST student and leader of the team. “Our team struggled a lot at the start as we had to work with a product that few of us had tried, much less enjoyed. But what was of paramount importance to us was not just removing the bitter taste of natto — we wanted to retain its character. It had to be recognisable as a natto product.”

The issues presented by the ingredient underpinned the team’s final product: natto crackers in two flavours, five spice, a popular Chinese condiment, and onion and garlic, a local favourite. By tempering natto’s potent taste with familiar flavours in the form of an accessible snack, the team sought to coalesce two distinct cultural preferences, providing a feasible way for natto to be introduced into the Singapore market.

Such food innovations not only offer opportunities for cultural exchange, but enable food diversification and nutrition security. “Natto is a good protein source, but isn’t very popular in Singapore. If we can create a product that appeals to the Singaporean palette, it can serve to increase the country’s plant protein intake, especially for the elderly,” said Dr Leong.

Pumpkin cream puffs: A new lease of life for “flawed” produce

While the first team grappled with the challenges of an unfamiliar ingredient, the second were presented a seemingly undesirable proposition: to use ‘defective’ Yukigeshou pumpkins in their product. The ‘defective’ pumpkins — ones that have external flaws that do not affect quality or taste — often remain unsold and are discarded.

“On paper it seemed like we were given an inferior ingredient, but this project changed our minds about what ‘defective produce’ means, and made us feel like we were doing something more important because we could try to make an impact by creating a sustainable food product that uses upcycled unmarketable produce and reduces food wastage,” said Mr Tan Liang Yong, a third-year FST major and co-leader of the team.

Partnering with Kadou Foods the team endeavoured to create a product that would introduce Hakodate produce to Singapore consumers. The result was the creation of an entirely new dessert: pumpkin cream puffs.

“Yukigeshou pumpkins are very fragrant and sweet, and has a non-fibrous, melt-in-your-mouth texture. We wanted to create a novel product that isn’t found anywhere in the current market, and our research and surveys showed that this product has high acceptability ratings,” said Liang Yong.

“This project was a self-directed learning experience, which is definitely a good way to immerse yourself in the field. Unexpectedly, we learned that a surprising amount of business acumen is required in the food development process. As science students, we typically deep dive into the scientific aspects of food development, but this project gave us the opportunity to learn about concepts such as production upscaling, economies of scale and marketing.”

Plans afoot: From idea to shelf

“Hakodate has an abundance of fresh ingredients which are packed with nutrients due to our cultivation temperatures, clean air, and clear streams. We were excited to work with NUS once again to use our produce to create new products to cater to the local market,” said Ms Maiko. “We hope to bring these products to market as soon as we gather feedback from local distributors and buyers.”

“Seeing the finished product and sending it out to local and Japanese companies was the most rewarding aspect of the project,” added Liang Yong. “We have successfully developed a product we’re proud of, and a sensory evaluation has shown that it’s very well-received. We look forward to possibly seeing our product in the market in the future.”