For many years, Japanese fare in Australia languished in the realm of the '70s Ozzie-Chino restaurant, where all was well so long as you steered clear of the mystery meat in the sickly sweet sauces and avoided stale fortune cookies. Most of us didn’t know any better. And if we did, we couldn’t find it.
Admittedly, there were a couple of culinary gems that managed to kamikaze onto the scene, but more common Japanese dining experiences of the '80s and '90s involved shots of ‘methylated’ sake, teriyaki-steak-and-three-veg, and ducking low-flying teppanyaki. As a lover of all Japanese cooking styles, I whined about the lack of decent eateries to anyone who tripped over my soapbox. Eventually, I avoided them altogether, in private protest.
Yet I kept my belief that, eventually, such a superbly considered cuisine, multi-layered and interesting, while still so good for you - and sometimes not - would have its day. I decided I would commit myself to spreading the good word of Japanese cooking. So, across the last decade, I pushed the envelope and wrote a few Japanese cookbooks, hoping they would be discovered, and that readers would find their way to the food of my heart.
And like all truly wonderful things, it would come to those who waited. How Zen of Japanese cuisine not to force attention to itself – ancient wisdom and philosophy allowing goen, a natural connection, to occur in its own good time.
Dining meccas such as Manhattan and Los Angeles have long been loved-up with Japanese food, and with celebrity chefs including David Chang and Britain’s Heston Blumenthal carrying the torch for dashi (the brothy cornerstone of Japanese cookery comprising katsuobushi – dried, fermented bonito or tuna shavings – kombu or kelp), there was bound to be a knock-on effect internationally.
When UNESCO recently declared Washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) an ‘intangible cultural heritage’, it suggested there was more than something a little special to discover in kitchens across the island nation. But when René Redzepi of Denmark’s Michelin-starred Noma announced he’d be locking the doors of his Copenhagen restaurant for a couple of months and transplanting his entire team to Tokyo from January to February 2015, previously uninvested food folk cocked an ear in his direction.
Redzepi’s fascination and deep respect for Japanese cuisine developed during a 2009 stint in Kyoto, Japan’s cultural epicentre. He says the ‘mind-boggling experience’ subsequently fuelled his work at Noma. Although vastly different culturally, he sees some similarities in aesthetics and seasonal response between Japanese and new-wave Scandinavian cuisine. A strong desire for his crew to share a unique life experience will see them jumping into the challenges of a relatively untapped food culture come January. ‘Japan was the first place that came to mind; a place of inspiration, where they could learn with child’s eyes. It's going to be a positive shock to their systems,’ says Redzepi.
This harmony of two seemingly polar cuisines isn’t a new idea. There has also long been a mutual admiration between Japanese and French cooking techniques, each respecting the dedication to detail and finesse of the other. Indeed, there are many famous French patisseries that have set up shop in Japan, such as Ladurée and Pierre Hermé, and soon to join them - and Redzepi - will be New York’s Dominique Ansel, who will bring his queue-inducing Cronut to Tokyo. Ansel says it is something he has ‘always wanted to do’, citing Japanese technique and quality as reasons for the venture.
And we, Down Under, are not completely behind the times. Izakaya, which loosely translates as a Japanese pub with snacks, are mushrooming throughout the country, and the invasion of respectable eat-and-run ramen, gyoza and sushi joints have certainly been infiltrating the scene from the food court up.
When ex-Porteno chef Kenji Maenaka slid open the door to Izakaya Fujiyama in 2011, fellow chefs and reviewers went wild for the casual Japanese tavern vibe. Punters happily chowing down on sashimi and plates of grilled tuna jaw, slow-simmered pork belly and karaage (fried chicken), proved the izakaya-style was a very welcome and much-needed addition to Japanese dining offerings. It also helped nurture an appreciation of sake, and Japanese beer and whisky.
While Sydney is home to a few excellent, long-established Japanese-run eateries, such as Yoshii, an inherently Japanese allergy to self-promotion means they’ve rarely enjoyed the attention they deserve. But when the sleek, well-marketed Sake restaurant convoy launched with Shaun Presland at the helm, the public started taking notice. Presland’s authentically acquired skill set and contemporary designs on sushi and izakaya fare ensured his employers a long-term monopoly on east coast Japanese dining – and drinking.
And joining Presland’s polished drink-and-dine formula, is Sokyo at The Star, under the direction of chef Chase Kojima, who is also overseeing a soon-to-open sister restaurant, Kiyomi, at the Gold Coast’s Jupiters Hotel & Casino. At Sokyo, Chase’s omakase-style menu (which leaves you entirely at the mercy of the chef) is created using beautiful Australian produce with Chase continually talking with producers to ensure, in true Japanese fashion, the freshest and most premium ingredients end up on the plate. With a talented chef as his father, and having worked at the much-lauded Nobu internationally for many years, US-born Chase is part of the new guard at the frontiers of Japanese cuisine in Australia – putting the daggy, '90s versions of old into stark contrast, and lifting the game with every deftly sliced piece of tuna.
And while the likes of Nobu and other US restaurants have piqued the interest of the food-aware over the years, it’s when our own food influencers start spotlighting a wallflower cuisine, that you know it’s going to have a trickle-down effect – be it on restaurant menus to how we cook and eat at home. Thumb through many creative, non-genre-specific menus today, and you’ll find more than a hint of Japanese flavour. From unwavering adherence to authentic ingredients and techniques to the more relaxed interpretation of yoshoku, or ‘Japanese-Western-style’.
Martin Benn’s Sepia is an obvious starter with Japanese-Euro mash-ups on the menu, such as the sashimi of yellow fin tuna with jamón Ibérico cream, wasabi and pork crackling, as well as a creative use of miso and kombu in a mustard and butter, respectively. There are also thick brushstrokes of Japanese influence in the likes of Ross Lusted’s sake-cured coral trout at Sydney’s The Bridge Room; Rockpool’s beef sukiyaki; and Adam Liston’s katsu-sando (or crumbed pork sandwich) at Collingwood’s Northern Light. Not to mention more than a little Japanese accent to the pan-Asian bites at cool eateries like Supernormal in Melbourne and Ms.G’s in Sydney. Meanwhile, in Beechworth, Michael Ryan’s menu at Provenance has dashi at its core – his long-term obsession with Japan evident in sake-infused cucumber, and a mushroom congee with umeboshi (pickled ume fruit) and kombu, among many other careful curations.
The trend has grown increasingly louder as it’s become obvious that diners and their palates appreciate both the delicate elements of the cuisine, like sashimi, and the more bombastic characters, like karaage. Two people who seem to have this all figured out are restaurateur Sam Christie and chef Jonathan Barthelmess, who, in June, opened one of Sydney’s hottest new spots, Cho Cho San, in Potts Point. The duo collaborated with head chef Nicholas Wong to serve up their contemporary spin on Jap-snack favourites, with a raw bar and hibachi grill providing a virtuous foil to the more devilish, izakaya-style pork katsu steam bun, which can be topped off with a green tea soft serve, if you feel so inclined.
But it’s not just the fooderati holding court. Also in June, Sydney saw Japanese restaurant giant Yayoi open its first outlet outside Asia. With a focus on affordable teishoku (set meals of simple, home-style fare), the place is pumping and a great initiation into Japanese flavours.
Quality ramen noodle shops have also began multiplying at the speed of a full-throttle Shinkansen, with the words ‘tonkotsu’, ‘shoyu’ and ‘miso’ entering our eating-out lexicon as we slurp away at Ippudo, Gumshara and Melbourne’s Shop Ramen. Not content to keep our noodles confined to bowls, the ramen burger (a burger patty sandwiched between two ramen cakes) spawned a stampede in Brooklyn, when it debuted at the Smorgasburg food market. Keen to appropriate the ramen burger’s US success, David Yip of ONE Tea Bar & Grill concocted his own version for the Good Food Month Night Noodle Markets in Sydney in 2013 and 2014, with curious ramenphiles lining up for a taste. But the inventions didn’t stop there, as the myriad ways ramen could masquerade as other foods captured imaginations around the world in the form of the ramnut (ramen donut) and, regrettably, the ramenritto (yes, a ramen burrito). These riffs on a classic Japanese food, while cultish, fleeting and cringe-inducing for some (myself included), certainly push the cuisine further into the spotlight.
Earlier this year I hosted two Kyoto cuisine and culture tours. Adding a prominent exclamation mark to the end of proceedings was the arrival of friend and chef Peter Gilmore of Sydney’s Quay Restaurant. Gilmore’s strong respect for nature, combined with his work with flavour and texture, and his elegant presentation has often reminded me of the refinement of Japanese fare.
Gilmore says he’s witnessed a ‘strong, slow build in interest in Japanese cuisine in Australia’ and, recently, has noted more ‘diversity and quality’ on offer. So on his fourth trip to Japan, he was on a mission to uncover a deeper sense of the Japanese approach to food. Gilmore bounced from stores showcasing a single, perfect ingredient to artisan ceramic studios, across to a farmer’s vegetable plot, and into the finest kaiseki (beautifully present, multi-course meals) kitchens. He also sampled the exquisite Shojin Ryori (Buddhist vegan specialities).
Inspiration from the trip, plus a natural affinity with umami, has seen a stronger Japanese blush over Quay menus of late, including Gilmore’s unique forms of koji (a type of fungus), miso, pickles and tofu. Gilmore describes his food as ‘complex simplicity’, and I couldn’t think of a better term to describe true Japanese cuisine.
It has taken a few decades for the seed to take root in Australia, but it’s evident to me that the yakitori is finally spinning over the binchotan (white charcoal), the JFC (Japanese fried chicken) is a-frying, and shichimi togarashi (seven-flavour spice) is being shot over anything that stands still. If the number of emails in my inbox seeking where, what and how to eat in Japan is any indication, we’ll be seeing a lot more Japanese eateries springing up on home soil and ingredients making their way onto menus and into shopping trolleys. So get excited, Australia, there’s a whole ‘new’ ancient cuisine to catch up on.
Photography by Jane Lawson