LONDON - From small, independent “izakaya” and pop-up ramen bars to high-end Japanese fusion restaurants and takeaway sushi chains, Japanese food can increasingly be found all over London.
While it is not yet as popular in Britain as in the United States or Asia — particularly outside London — Japanese food producers and the government appear to be turning to Europe for new markets as Japan’s population shrinks.
UNESCO’s recognition of “washoku” (traditional Japanese cuisine) as an intangible cultural heritage in December could help spread its popularity, said British Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal.
“I think what this could do is open up the realization of the relationship between Japanese food, eating, culture, tradition (and) ceremony,” he said. “Of all the cuisines in the world, it’s the one that has all of those things contained in it more than others.”
At a PR event held at the Japanese Embassy in London, Blumenthal, famed for his scientific approach to food, said he also believes the recent publication of the Michelin food guide to Tokyo has helped open up Japanese food to a greater number of people than ever before.
Sushi restaurants, both expensive and cheap, have seen success in the British capital for a number of years, but more recently other Japanese dishes ranging from “katsu” curry to ramen and “okonomiyaki” have started to enter Londoners’ culinary lexicons as interest in, and consumption of, Japanese food becomes more conspicuous.
Japanese food can now be found not only in specialist food shops and Chinatown, but also in major British supermarkets.
The embassy event — part of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry’s Oishii Japan campaign to promote washoku overseas — was attended by politicians, journalists and business figures.
Chefs at London’s top Japanese restaurants took the opportunity to showcase dishes such as slow-cooked fresh water eel with squid ink bread and roast beef with mushroom miso.
Ross Shonhan, an Australian chef who has opened two Japanese restaurants in the British capital, believes Britain is currently experiencing a second Japanese food wave with “tonkotsu” (pork bone stock) ramen becoming particularly popular.
“I think Japanese food just over the last several years has become part of a weekly diet for a lot of people in London,” he said. “Before, Italian was probably a staple three times a week for a lot of people and then British a couple of times and then maybe they would venture out for a Chinese or an Indian or a Thai once a week.
“As (Japanese food) becomes part of their weekly diet, their fear factor goes down as their comfort level increases and then I think they start to explore other things,” he said.
Shonhan also feels that some of the strong flavors present in certain types of Japanese food appeal to Western tastes.
“We increase a lot of soy, garlic, chili, miso, ginger, whatever those key flavors are, we make them quite pronounced. That’s to appeal to a Western palate that eats Chinese food, Indian food, Mexican food and all these sort of strong-flavored foods,” he said.
Yet Shonhan believes there are still significant barriers to overcome before Japanese food becomes as popular in Britain as it is in the United States or Asia.
One issue is trade laws, which can often be unpredictable and strict in Europe, he said, referring to import restrictions on “wagyu” (Japanese premium beef) that have only recently been lifted in the European Union.
Overall, Shonhan feels that import laws on food are much stricter in Europe and Britain than in countries like the United States, where the Japanese food market is much bigger.
In addition, the possibilities for Japanese food outside London remain unclear.
Mitch Koike, deputy managing director of London-based Japanese food retailer and restaurant operator the Japan Centre, is confident Japanese food can become as much a part of London food culture as Chinese or Indian food in around five years, but has reservations about the possibilities in the rest of Britain.
“I think London and the rest of the country is a totally different market,” Koike said. “Once we go outside it’s more conventional and traditional and people might not like to eat fresh fish.”
Koike also feels statistics on Japanese food consumption in Britain would help when making decisions about when and where to expand.
“The Japanese government is more export-based, not consumption-based. When it comes to consumption, the Japanese government doesn’t have any route (to obtain statistics),” he said.
Nevertheless, Japanese food producers appear to be turning their sights toward Europe, revising their traditionally more inward focus. To help those producers who are eager to find new markets, the Japan Centre holds a food show around twice a year.
At a recent event organized by the Museum of Sake, a London-based organization devoted to promoting sake in Britain and Europe, Niizawa Brewery, a sake brewer from Miyagi Prefecture, showcased its sake alongside British food. The event took place at high-end British restaurant Hix and emphasized the potential for pairing sake with non-Japanese cuisine, including steak tartare, oysters and even cheese.
Koike believes this kind of communication effort, particularly for Japanese ingredients, is key to getting British consumers to feel more comfortable with Japanese food.
“Most of the time the food industry in Japan is so domestic focused. They are not used to communicating outside Japan,” said Koike. “They are more focused on products, the quality.”
“Now the Japanese market is shrinking they need to look for a new market, they need to carry their information outside (to) new customers. I think they are in that stage right now. In a different culture, different language they need to treat their products for the customers outside of their knowledge. I think that’s their challenge,” he said.