East meets west: Chefs championing Japanese cuisine here reveal how they use local Irish ingredients
The chefs championing Japanese cuisine here tell Katy McGuinness how they incorporate local Irish ingredients into their dishes
If your only experience of Japanese food has been with the dreaded 'fusion sushi' that you'll find in petrol stations (and, sadly, also in restaurants) up and down the country, then you may wonder what all the fuss is about. There is, though, some exceptional Japanese food in Ireland - you just have to know where to find it.
Yoshimi Hayakawa is the woman behind Wa Sushi in Galway, which she says is Ireland's only authentic sushi bar. Originally from Toyota, Yoshimi arrived in Ireland in 2001 to study English and has lived here ever since. She says that making proper sushi isn't that difficult, but that it has still taken her nearly 20 years to become a sushi chef.
"I am very slow," she says. "In Japan, it only takes 10 years. My problem was that I have no mentor in Ireland and sometimes there are little things that cause me difficulty, but I look at tutorials online and every year I go back to Japan for more training. Last year I spent three months in college in Nagoya."
Yoshimi started out selling sushi in the Galway market outside Sheridan's cheese shop and, as tourism and the Irish appetite for fish grew, toyed with the idea of opening a Japanese restaurant.
She started with Kappa Ya in 2005, and then opened Wa Cafe in 2008. Over the past decade she has refined the menu at Wa, ditching all cooked food other than gyoza but retaining her signature Japanese 'Snickers' dessert. She relaunched as Wa Sushi last May, and now focuses on Edomae-style sushi, which she describes as "the highest class" of sushi.
"Edomae was created during the 1820s in Tokyo," she explains. "Edo is the old word for Tokyo, and Mae means front. When there was no refrigeration, Edomae originated as a way to preserve and enhance the taste of fish by marinating. Edomae is only made with fish caught in Tokyo Bay. In Tokyo, if you use salmon, people say you are a loser, because there are no salmon in Tokyo Bay. Edomae doesn't use toro [bluefin] or sea urchin [uni] either - they are only available in Hokkaido, so if Japanese people want to eat those special fish that's where they go. What I do is Galway-Mae, with all the fish from Galway. The quality is very good - my Japanese customers are impressed."
At Wa, there are just eight seats at the counter behind which Yoshimi makes a single piece of sushi at a time, in front of her guests.
"There is no menu and sometimes people are scared, because they don't know what I will give them," she says. "I am so happy, finally I can say that I am a sushi chef. I hope everyone in Ireland will travel to Galway to eat special Irish sushi."
In Cork city, Takashi Miyazaki opened his first restaurant, the eponymous Miyazaki, on Evergreen Street in 2005. The restaurant serves what Takashi calls "everyday food" - dishes such as ramen, izakaya-style wings, salmon zuke don (salmon and vegetables with rice) - much of it to take away.
"In Japan," he tells me, "this kind of food is very easy to access in an 'eat and go' way. It's not fast food, but it is fast. When I first saw the English Market in Cork, I knew that I would be able to create the kind of food that I wanted to here. The local chicken, pork and beef are all good, and gradually I have started to use more and more local ingredients, such as the seaweeds that I put in seaweed salad or in pickles. The hardest thing to get right is the dashi [the richly-flavoured broth that is the cornerstone of many dishes]; I am still importing Japanese kombu to get the right flavour."
Miyazaki was a success from the outset; its customers include Japanese tourists and students, as well as one Japanese man living in England who comes over on the ferry on his motorbike several times a year to get his fix.
Last year, Takashi opened his second restaurant, the fine-dining Ichigo Ichie, which found immediate favour with the inspectors from the Michelin Guide and was awarded a Michelin star within months.
"Ichigo Ichie is completely different," he says. "It's a true kaiseki [a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner] experience, the only one in Ireland; there are very few even in Europe. I could see that there was a demand for it, and I knew that I could rise to the challenge. I stood up.
"I learned a lot from Miyazaki and applied that learning to Ichigo Ichie. I've become very keen on lamb. In Japan, the lamb - mutton really - that we eat is from Tasmania but the lamb here is amazing. The West Cork lamb has a real mineral flavour, it tastes different from the Achill Island lamb, which is also very good. I've learned about the subtle variations in flavour and how the flavour changes according to the geographical location and the time of year. I do still import some ingredients that I just can't get here. For instance, in Japan, cherry blossom season, called sakura, in March and April is when you serve fresh bonito [a type of fish] - but you can't get that in Ireland, so we import it from Spain. My challenge to myself now is to keep visiting more local producers to discover more Irish seasonal ingredients that I can use in my food."
While Yoshimi and Takashi were both born in Japan and then moved to Ireland, the chef many consider to be serving the most authentic ramen in the country is Co Tyrone-born Brian Donnelly of Bia Rebel in Belfast. He has never even been to Japan, although he does say that a visit "is top of the list".
Brian and his partner Jenny Holland opened their ramen bar in 2017. It's been heaped with praise by the critics and was named Best Cheap Eats in the Observer Food Magazine's awards last year. Ulster rugby player Rob Herring and some of his team mates are regular customers, dropping in for sustenance after training sessions. ("It's funny to see these big guys in our small space," says Brian.)
"Brian had worked at Ballymaloe and with Gordon Ramsay, Kevin Thornton, Gary Rhodes, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Paul Rankin," says Jenny, "and he was tired, desperate to get away from the western-style cooking and eating experience."
"In opening my own place, I wanted to do something accessible rather than high-end," says Brian. "I came across ramen online and was impressed by how emotional people were about it, so Jenny and I went to New York and spent a month eating in every ramen place that we could find."
Back home in Belfast, Brian and Jenny looked for a good local supplier of noodles but failed to find one.
"We taught ourselves how to make them on YouTube," says Brian. "It was a blank canvas for me and it took two months to develop the first dish. The first day we were so nervous, and everything was so unfamiliar, but we sold out. Our customers told us it was really tasty. We take a super-artisanal approach; we make everything from scratch. Japanese people can't believe it."
Even though some of the ramen dishes on offer in Bia Rebel would never be found on a menu in Japan - there are twists involving carbonara and chicken tikka - the process is one of integrity rather than driven by gimmicks.
"A bowl of ramen has to be a cohesive eating experience," says Brian. "We use an authentic Japanese recipe to make our ramen; sodium carbonate and potassium give the noodles their snap and taste - the sodium reacts with the flour to make the noodles yellow; it's a technique derived from when there were egg shortages after WW2. There are two main styles of noodle - hakkata and Tokyo. Hakkata are thin noodles designed to be served in a creamy broth, while Tokyo-style noodles are thicker-cut with higher moisture density and more suited to chicken. Ours are hakkata-style, but thicker-cut, so they are unique to us. The ramen master in Paris who I did a class with said he'd never met anyone who made their own, as ramen noodles are much harder to make than pasta because the dough has to be compressed and kneaded like puff pastry. Now we have a roller, but we still make two hundred portions of noodles by hand every day."
The same attention to detail is brought to bear on the broth - one of the other key components in ramen - as it is to the noodles.
"We use chicken broth," says Brian. "Pork broth is more common, but we find it two-dimensional and too greasy for Irish tastes. Chicken is more sympathetic to the Irish palate. Our Belfast ramen has 26 ingredients and takes 40 hours to make. There's nuance to the food; I haven't forgotten where I came from! The ingredients include soy, orange blossom, oolong tea, a sofrito of apples, ginger, garlic and onions, then broth and garnishes including chashu pork shoulder, which Irish people prefer to the fattier belly, and a smoked tea egg cooked for six minutes and six seconds - the 606! It's hyperbolic in a takeaway setting, but I am very serious about food and wanted a very deep, meaty savoury flavour to the eggs and used smoked tea to achieve it. In Japan, smoked tea is the coolest thing there is this year, so we've had a lot of interest online from around the world."
Brian sources all ingredients from local biodynamic and organic farmers, pursuant to what he says is a "constant search for deliciousness". "The cost is all in the bowl," he says, "and the restaurant is nothing. You can buy cheap pork anywhere, but we use heritage Saddlebacks from Kenny Gracey who bred the heritage breeds for Game of Thrones; it costs more but there is a trade-off - you carry your own bowl and we have no wait staff.
"We get lots of Japanese customers, they say that it is one of the most authentic ramen shops in Europe. We don't have any pretend lanterns, we are not trying to be Japanese, but fundamentally Ireland and Japan are not that dissimilar in terms of topography - there's lots of green and brown and we are both good at pork, mushrooms and seaweed. Taking the English and colonisation out of the equation, where would Ireland have ended up food-wise? - it might have been ramen!"
Lessons from Japanese cuisine
Yoshimi: If you want to make proper sushi, you have to practise, practise, practise. Patience is the key. You can find tutorials online to help you learn the skills. And to be authentic - to make Edomae-style sushi - you have to use locally-caught fish only; nothing imported.
Takashi Miyazaki: Seasonal eating is very important in Japan, because ingredients in season are at their peak in terms of flavour. In Japan, the kaiseki experience is all about seasonal food, and the menu changes slowly according to the season. It's known as 'shun', which means the right ingredients in the right seasons - literally it translates as 'the height of ripeness'.
Brian Donnelly: Using high-quality ingredients and not taking shortcuts is the key to the multi-layered flavours that you find in ramen. It's important to pay attention to the Irish palate, which prefers dishes not to be too fatty. We learned very quickly what the Irish customer does and does not like.
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