Cuisine Focus 2018: Japanese

Japanese cuisine is gaining popularity in the Middle East with a slew of recent openings
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Filo ebi tempura at Maki, Bahrain.
Filo ebi tempura at Maki, Bahrain.

Meet the experts

Aijiro Shinoda, brand head chef, Atisuto

Herve Courtot, chef de cuisine, Nobu

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Hisao Ueda, executive chef, Kohantei

Glenn Sebastian Lacandalo, executive chef, Sumo Sushi & Bento

Pawel Kazanowski, regional executive chef, Zuma

Louis Kenji Huang, executive chef, Maki

How popular is Japanese cuisine in the region?

Aijiro Shinoda: Japanese cuisine has been hugely popular in the region for some time now and demand continues to rise. Dining options are available at both ends of the spectrum — in terms of dining experience and price point  — making Japanese food increasingly accessible. It’s attractive also for its nutritional value.

Herve Courtot: I would say very popular! I think the Middle East is one of those places where food plays a key role and there is so much diversity on offer. Overall, there is still a high demand for quality Japanese food here.

Hisao Ueda: Fusion/modern Japanese cuisine is undoubtedly popular, as evident from the successive opening of restaurants at multiple price points, for example Nobu, Zuma, Toko, Ramusake, Play, Geisha House and Katana. However, there is a growing appreciation for traditional Japanese cuisine, particularly from guests who have been to, or are fascinated by, Japan.

Glenn Sebastian Lacandalo: Japanese cuisine has gained great popularity in this region since our start in 2000. Asian is the one of the fastest growing food & beverage segments in the world, which is where Japanese cuisine fits in. Four years ago, we had only a handful of competitors; our competitive analysis in the summer of 2017 shows we now have 27 competitors in the marketplace.

Pawel Kazanowski: Japanese food is well-known for being a healthy option when looking to indulge in a good meal. The purity, use of sophisticated flavours and glamour adds to the appeal of eating Japanese when dining out. The number of Japanese restaurants in the region clearly reflects the growing popularity and how well the cuisine resonates with residents and visitors alike.

Louis Kenji Huang: Japanese cuisine has become extremely popular in the MENA region. This is owing to the fact that Japanese cuisine has several attractive attributes. This cuisine is considered the most refined worldwide, is among the healthiest cuisines, and includes flavours and tastes unmatched across the globe. It is also in sync with the region’s culture of sharing dishes.

Have you noticed any trends in Japanese cuisine?

Shinoda: Over the last few years there has been a clear trend towards a more authentic style of ‘street-food’ and sharing concepts, but this is true for all cuisines, not just Japanese. More specifically, I’ve noticed an increased appreciation for higher end products, such as Japanese Wagyu beef, with some restaurants now exclusively serving Japanese beef on their menus.

Courtot: Japanese food has become extremely popular in the last 15 years. To be specific, sushi and sashimi has been the highlight of Japanese cuisine all around the world but during the last couple of years, Japanese street food has started to become popular as consumers are more willing to try new things. The most unusual type of sushi on our menu is probably the sea urchin, though one of our most popular dishes is the yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño 24.

Ueda: Awareness of  the cuisine has grown to the point where regional residents have a desire for truly authentic Japanese cuisine — to be distinguished from imitations, or American interpretations of Japanese cuisine.

Lacandalo: The biggest trend in Japanese cuisine is fusion. Guests are less inclined to purchase from the traditional sections, sashimi and nigiri, and more inclined to buy the mixture of combined flavours in uramaki (rolls).

Kazanowski: People are already aware of sushi, which is only a fraction of what Japanese cuisine really entails; however, there has been a recent demand for the undiscovered areas of Japanese dishes and these offerings have started to appear on the regional market.

Huang: Integrating exotic, international ingredients into Japanese cuisine is perhaps the biggest trend, where dishes have now transcended typical Japanese ingredients. You have restaurants adding items which were alien to Japanese cuisine in order to make dishes more palatable for the region, and more exciting from both taste and visual perspectives.

What are some challenges you face when it comes to Japanese cuisine?

Shinoda: The key challenges that I’ve had to address include the way I prepare my food in the hot UAE climate, as it can considerably affect taste. The diversity of the population is also something we have to be mindful of when creating dishes, as we’re dealing with a lot of different palettes. Sometimes flavours and combinations need to be adjusted to maximise the appeal, without threatening authenticity.

Courtot: The main challenge is finding good quality produce. In addition, I need to ensure my team is taught traditional Japanese cooking techniques, so our customers have a truly authentic experience.

Ueda: A large part of Japanese cuisine is innately linked to alcohol and pork. Using alternatives or variants while preserving taste, as much as possible, is particularly difficult. More critically, it’s particularly difficult attracting professionals — chefs and service staff — to relocate to the Middle East. It is easy to overlook that Japanese hospitality is both a vital and critical component.

Lacandalo: The challenges we face in 2018 are somewhat similar to our opening in 2000. In 2000 we had to introduce the cuisine to the market; today we face the challenge of showing we are more than sushi. Guests who have not eaten with us think it is raw seafood, which is available; however we have a lot of rolls, bentos, soups and salads that don’t have any raw seafood in them.

Kazanowski: As a chef for Japanese cuisine working out of Japan, a great deal of imagination and creativity is required. Japanese chefs in their home country often use signature ingredients which are a sure win when catering to their audiences, yet this does not necessarily apply to foreign diners. Therefore we have to be mindful of striving to maintain authenticity when offering a contemporary take on popular favourites.

Huang: Some of the challenges include the ability to find ingredients and to cope with their rising costs. A prime example is items imported from Japan which have risen by 15% in the past two years. Add to that the need to modify, and create new dishes to cater to the increasing number of ‘special-diet’ guests such as vegans, vegetarians, and gluten-free diners.

Is it easy to source the ingredients that you need?

Shinoda: I have been working in Dubai for the past 11 years, so I am pleased to have long-standing relationships with some very loyal suppliers. One of these is Aladib, which supplies our local fish. I also work closely with Trubell, which supplies some of the best rice in the market. However, as a Japanese eatery, we do rely on importing several products directly from Japan. The most challenging of these to source is Japanese flour for our bakery, which is very expensive and only has a shelf-life of six months. However, it’s critical to the unique flavour of some of our bakery items and so it is an investment that we think is worthwhile.

Courtot: In Dubai, it is easy to source ingredients as long as you have the budget to purchase expensive produce. It is a big challenge to find a good supplier who understands exactly what you’re looking for in terms of cost and quality of the produce, and who can provide it. Currently, I am in Europe visiting a tuna farm run by a Japanese company to discuss supplying tuna to the Nobu restaurants around the world. One of the most important aspects for me is to have the chance to search for new products in order to improve the quality of the food in the restaurant. Research and development is key; in Dubai we can’t bring the product directly so we need to find a local partner to be the middleman who can assist in making this process easier for us.

Ueda: The combination of scarcity, significantly higher prices due to the lower economy of scale, language and communication barriers, and high demand make it tricky to deal with Japanese ingredients. It requires long term commitment, and heavy investment, both financially and emotionally.

Lacandalo: We have a very experienced supply chain department so it’s not difficult. When you have been in the same market for 18 years and are the largest franchise chain, it makes sourcing less of a challenge.

Kazanowski: In Dubai, we are blessed with a vast availability of ingredients that can be sourced and delivered extremely quickly. Japanese vegetables, fish and meats plays a tremendous role in our menu, but we also use locally cultivated vegetables such as tomatoes when convenient.

Huang: Some basic ingredients are easy to source such as shrimp, of which the Kuwait market for example, sees at least 600 tonnes every month. However, many ingredients are tough to source and those are usually exotic ingredients, and ingredients which local suppliers may run out of due to supply shortages from the origin, and increasingly stringent import regulations.

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