Will pork feet step in where sushi left off in N.Y.?

by Nanae Kemmochi

Kyodo

New Yorkers are becoming increasingly accustomed to a wide range of authentic Japanese food, as “soba,” “udon,” yakitori and ramen restaurants keep making inroads.

Even a store specializing in “hijiki” seaweed crepes is appealing to hungry Manhattanites seeking to push the gastronomic envelope.

So what will New Yorkers crave next? Himi Okajima, a chef from Kyushu who is opening a restaurant in Greenwich Village, is convinced pork feet are the next big thing and aims to be instrumental in creating a new wave in Japanese restaurants.

Called “tonsoku,” the dish is eaten widely in the southwestern reaches of Japan, especially Kyushu and Okinawa, but its popularity is spreading to other parts of the country as well. Okajima also explained how women especially favor the collagen-rich food in the belief it is good for their skin.

While he readily admits that many Americans probably look with disdain on pig’s feet, although its pickled and soul food varieties are available, he is far from deterred. Instead, he argues that sushi, now largely mainstream and readily available even in supermarkets and delis, was frowned on just decades ago by people who shunned raw fish.

In the same vein as sushi chefs in the 1970s, Okajima is striving to become a pioneer in pork feet.

“I think Americans will think what Japanese say tastes good is good food,” said the 37-year-old former French chef who moved to New York in February.

He is planning to put together a menu featuring 40 different dishes incorporating shredded pork feet and a variety of ingredients. The dishes range from Korean-style casseroles to spaghetti carbonara.

Some, however, doubt whether Americans — even adventurous New Yorkers who tend to be more open to sampling ethnic food — are ready to enjoy just any type of Japanese fare.

Motonari Matsunaga, an experienced sushi chef at Iroha in midtown Manhattan, believes Americans, including New Yorkers, are only interested in healthy varieties of Japanese food.

“The key to the spread of sushi in the United States was the word ‘healthy,’ ” said Matsunaga, who has been living in the U.S. for 23 years. “The trend here is healthy food, such as organic vegetables.

“People here might have an image that pork feet are oily and fattening,” even though they have fewer calories and fat than other kinds of meat, Matsunaga said. “It might work if (the restaurant) serves a lot of vegetables and markets them as healthy.”

Okajima, however, asserts tonsoku is healthy, explaining it is relatively low in calories, especially when compared with other pork products, including loin.

“People tend to assume the collagen in pork feet is fat, but it’s not. It’s mostly protein,” he said.

On top of promoting the product as being healthy, he wants to educate Americans, especially women, about its value in helping keep the skin healthy and youthful.

Okajima believes the collagen in pork feet will be the key to his success. Because collagen gives skin strength and elasticity, he said, “tonsoku is something women around the world will love.”

Japan is going through a “collagen boom,” with skin-conscious women seeking out cosmetics, supplements, food and drinks containing the ingredient.

But the rest of the world is not on the same page.

“People here are not as obsessed about collagen as Japanese women are,” Matsunaga said. Although there are cosmetic products and surgical procedures using collagen in the United States, most Americans are not tuned in to it.

But maybe Japanese food does not need to be healthy or possess beauty benefits to be enjoyed.

The recent arrivals of the Japanese restaurants Gyukaku and Setagaya Ramen, which also serve high-calorie dishes, appear to indicate many Americans are open to Japanese food even when it lacks health benefits.

Gyukaku, the barbecue beef restaurant chain, has opened two outlets in Manhattan in the past two years. “We get a good mix of Japanese, Americans, Chinese and Koreans,” said Richard Kashida, the general manager at Gyukaku in the East Village.

Although red meat is considered by many people to be less than healthy, Gyukaku has been steadily expanding its presence with more than 10 restaurants in the U.S.

Ramen, a high-calorie, high-sodium noodle dish, is becoming ever more popular with locals as well. New Yorkers patiently wait in long lines to eat different types of ramen in the East Village, suggesting they are simply seeking to indulge in tasty food.

Whether tonsoku will find ready takers in the Big Apple remains to be seen, but Okajima is moving forward nonetheless and preparing for the September opening of his restaurant, Hakata TonTon.

The restaurant will be modeled after Himiyabi, his tonsoku restaurant in Fukuoka Prefecture, where it has been a local hit since opening two years ago. The menus will be similar, except for the use of Berkshire black pork from Ohio instead of the Kagoshima black pork he uses in Japan.

Although Okajima is using a different name for his New York restaurant to make it easier for Americans to remember, that is where the changes end. He said he is not willing to alter the authentic taste of his food to suit the American palate.

“Like they did with sushi, I want Americans to adjust to our food,” he said.

As a child, Okajima said, he dreamed of becoming a chef. By 18 he had started out as a French chef hoping to open his own restaurant. By 26 he had achieved his dream but then aspired to go abroad.

After he discovered tonsoku, he said, he found his life’s mission and aspired to take tonsoku to the world at large.

After the New York restaurant is up and running, Okajima said he will head to Europe where he is anxious to open branches in Italy, France and London within the next five years.