Gumption is what fueled Kainoa Reloza’s decision to enter a 7-Eleven Hawaii bento competition with his healthy version of sinigang, a traditional Filipino sour soup. And as it turned out, his bold choice was the right one. Reloza’s sinigang will be in 7-Eleven stores in Hawaii in a few months.
“This was a whole new experience for me. I wasn’t expecting to win. This is a hot bento contest, and my dish is not a hot bento dish,” he said. “This tells me I should have more faith in myself.”
The fact that the judging panel was willing to break the format of the contest on behalf of Reloza’s dish is proof enough that his culinary compass — and his decision to follow it — was spot on.
Reloza, who also took home a $1,000 prize, is a third-year culinary student at Kapiolani Community College. He was one of eight competitors in 7-Eleven’s “On the Line” Healthy Entree Competition, held Dec. 4 at the Culinary Institute of the Pacific at Diamond Head. Six other entrants are fellow KCC students; another attends Leeward Community College.
Contestants were required to use at least two locally grown, caught or raised ingredients to create a dish that had no more than 700 calories. The dish also had to include at least three components, such as protein, vegetables, grains or pasta — but no rice.
Reloza’s Sinigang Rice Noodle Soup featured a base made from pork and shrimp shells from Kauai shrimp, plus garlic, ginger, tamarind puree, bay leaves, black pepper and a touch of sugar. He said he sauteed the shells in oil with garlic before adding water to the ingredients, then reducing the liquid by half. His soup bowl contained rice noodle, shrimp, and local veggies bok choy, okra, Roma tomatoes, Ewa sweet onions and long beans — “hardy vegetables that keep their color.”
“This is the comfort food I ate as a kid,” he said.
He started his recipe with the memory of the soup. “I had the general taste in my head,” he said, and then made batches of soup, adjusting along the way.
Debbie Lee Soon, 7-Eleven’s senior category manager for fresh food, was one of five judges. She said that besides appreciating the sinigang’s authentic taste, the soup, while not a hot bento, fit into the category of comfort food — precisely the kind of dish 7-Eleven was seeking.
“It’s food you eat at home, and that’s what our customers are looking for — convenience and something to eat at home,” she said.
The sinigang’s run at the store will depend on customer response.
Also to hit 7-Eleven shelves will be a hekka created by KCC student Brittany Soga, runner-up in the contest.
But before all that, the students’ recipes must be scaled up for mass production. That’s the job of Shohei Kutsuna, new product developer at Warabeya USA, a producer of ready-to-eat foods that supplies local 7-Eleven stores.
Kutsuna said producing large quantities of a dish sometimes means a few ingredients may need to be changed out.
“Scaling up to 100 pounds or 500 pounds could affect taste, so we do a big-lot test, then adjust,” he said. “We can do taste testing and adjustments three to five times.” In the end, he said, most dishes end up tasting “very close” to the original.
Other entries: a chicken mabo tofu served over udon, by Ritchie Wong of KCC, which earned the People’s Choice award; a tofu and kabocha stir-fry by Ranie Ranga of LCC; chicken meatballs by LaTonya Emedo; a spicy chicken burrito by Jeremy Stevens; Thai curry soba by Lee Ann Young; and a chicken tom yum couscous dish by Toby Kammunkun.