The Rise of Japanese Cuisine in Britain
A few years ago, most people’s pantries didn’t stock ingredients such as miso, kombu, tofu or bonito, but now it would be strange not to find these lurking in the back of their fridge. To those who don’t know what these are, then where have you been hiding? Every insta-chef and their pug has been using one or all of these ingredients at some point in the last twelve months, if it wasn’t in a hotpot – it was on toast!
There is a lot more to this than just a passing phase, the Eastern ingredients and techniques are steeped in hundreds of years of history and a single pointed dedication to crafting a food that is now accessible to us all.
For me this is more than just the latest UK ‘foodie’ trend and as a restaurateur I have been creating dishes using these Japanese staples for many years, however it’s comforting to see how many have embraced these flavours into their culinary endeavours and there has been an increased use.
Our obsession with Japanese food has evolved quite a bit in recent years from supermarket sushi and chains such as ‘Yo Sushi’ and ‘Itsu’ being our only Japanese connection. I remember a time when wasabi, edamame, yuzu and matcha were still unknown to most people but now we are spoilt for choice with a range of ingredients readily available as well as concepts such as casual Tokyo pub style grub, paired down ramen restaurants where slurping your soup is the highest compliment and a necessity. Moreover, we have evolved and transcended the High St Japanese brands and even opened up to the ideology of perfectly balanced and harmonious plates of Washoku style dining, now recognised by UNESCO.
Even though these are fairly new ideas for the UK, in Australia, the use of Asian ingredients is common. A chef that has been bucking this trend for the past few years is Australian born Scott Hallsworth of Kurobuta. Scott cottoned onto casual modern Japanese dining very early on. In 2013, he opened his Izakaya (Japanese gastropub) which was very well received by critics and customers alike, with food writers such as Giles Coren awarding it nine out of ten.
Scott’s love for Asian ingredients started when he was a young boy visiting the local Thai and Chinese supermarkets in Australia, ‘I would wander into these shops and be fascinated by all the unusual ingredients and ask the shop clerks how to cook with them’ he says. This is a chef who has come through the ranks when it comes to Japanese food, from working at the high-end Mayfair icon, Nobu for six years where he became Head chef to opening Japanese concepts in Dubai, Melbourne and back here in England. There are many fermented and dried Japanese ingredients that play a big part on Kurobuta’s menu, in particular Hallsworth cannot do without essentials such as kombu, mirin and koji. The latter has seen an increase in usage on British menus, a bacterium that grows on rice, this fascinating ingredient is most commonly used in the production of sake and miso in Japan. However, it has many other uses and chefs over here have started experimenting with koji using non-traditional methods.
One such chef is up and coming young trailblazer Elizabeth Allen, who has enjoyed great success since her appearance on Masterchef in 2011. I recently went to a supper club held by Elizabeth to promote her latest project, Shibui, a concept that will take influence from Britain and Asia and fuse them together into a balanced but bold harmony. The stand out dish for me on the night, outside the buttermilk fried chicken with miso and caviar was the koji beef with coffee. Allen, proved that it is possible to sensitively marry western and eastern flavours. If this was a sign of things to come using Japanese ingredients, then we have exciting times ahead.
For us to look forward we must look back. I gained some insight from a conversation with Christopher Dawson who founded Clearspring, a company that has enjoyed great success from our relentless desire to consume Japanese food and culture, ‘the early 1980’s was a very exciting time to be introducing new Japanese flavours to the UK. At the time, Japan was largely known by the British public for imported vehicles and various gadgets. Mysterious and exotic food was the preserve of familiar Indian cuisine’.
This was certainly true for me personally, my parent’s fruit and vegetable import business allowed me access to exotic ingredients from Kenya and India. The aubergine along with other Indian ingredients became common place in the mid 80’s early 90’s, however you would be hard pushed to find a jar of miso let alone kombu or mirin in your local supermarket, nowadays they have their own brand of these Japanese staples. Since the eighties, Clearspring has been a pioneer in Japanese cuisine, ‘Besides sauerkraut and pickled onions, vegetable quality probiotic fermented foods were almost non-existent in Europe. Fermented foods were almost dairy based. Animal foods were seen as the only/best form of high protein’ Chris reminisces.
Clearspring is company that has remained true to the cultural heritage of their ingredients and highly respects the craft traditions of Japan, without compromising brand promises and ethics. ‘Increasing competition from other brands has also been an issue especially when their standards are lower, their production processes faster and their quality inferior’ says Chris.
This is true of any phase in food where the consumer is unable to see past a fleeting trend, as the demand grows we want to have it quicker and cheaper than before, subsequently breeding a culture that compromises the true quality of that product.
For me Japanese food is more than some sushi in a supermarket or tempura on a pub menu, the cuisine and its ingredients are deep seated in a craft that we should honour and recognise. Whilst I believe and support in taking these amazing ingredients into the future, I also feel we should develop our understanding of their heritage more and with this knowledge we can bring our own unique personality to this amazing and diverse cuisine.
Want more? Jay will be speaking more on this topic at The International Food & Drink Event on Monday 20th March, 11:30 – 12:10 at ExCeL London
By Jay Morjaria