One of the challenges for chefs in the region is to convince customers that Japanese cuisine goes beyond raw food and sushi. One of the challenges for chefs in the region is to convince customers that Japanese cuisine goes beyond raw food and sushi.

Japanese cuisine is more than just raw fish, yaki soba and  seaweed salads.  Caterer finds out how chefs manage guests’ expectations, while continuing to educate about the wide range of dishes available

Meet the Experts

  • Kenneth Kim, executive chef, Inakaya
  • Fabio Nakazato, executive chef, Mikado Café
  • Hugh Sato Gardiner, corporate chef, Okku
  • Alexander Stumpf, group executive chef, Toko Dubai

Would you say Japanese cuisine is popular in this region?
Kenneth Kim, executive chef, Inakaya: Very popular! It is one of the most well-known cuisines in the UAE and you can find a wide variety of Japanese restaurants across the region. They range from traditional and modified, to lounge and fusion concepts.

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Fabio Nakazato, executive chef, Mikado Café: It’s definitely quite popular; the Emiratis and expats living in Abu Dhabi love Japanese cuisine. We see them visit Mikado quite often, and not just for the sushi but also for the baked goods. Sushi is their favourite, but what I see nowadays is that lesser known preparations such soba and udon are also gaining prominence.

Alexander Stumpf, group executive chef, Toko Dubai: Yes, it definitely is, especially the izakaya concept, which is hugely successful in Dubai at the moment. It is a concept where guests have a chance to try several dishes from the menu at the same time. Also, the reason why Japanese food is so popular is because the cuisine is light, healthy and tasty, with a variety of flavours and textures.

Is the preparation of Japanese cuisine in this region authentic?
Kim: We present simple, authentic and flavoursome Japanese dishes that appeal to audiences from a diverse array of cultures, including the Abu Dhabi market.

Nakazato: We aim to maintain the authenticity of Japanese preparations. For us, the most important thing is that guests who eat at our restaurant get a flavour of what they would have eaten in Japan.

Hugh Sato Gardiner, corporate chef, Okku: For Japanese cuisine, basics like the way you prepare rice, fillet a fish, make dashi (bonito) stock, are crucial and cannot be negotiated. In terms of tweaking a dish for the local palate, it will generally include removing certain core ingredients out of respect for local customs and traditions, or recreating the dish altogether.

For example, the use of sake is minimal here in the UAE and hon-mirin is replaced with a non-alcoholic version called mirin-fu chomiryo. Additionally, restaurants take an authentic Japanese food item and recreate it into something unique and relevant for this market.

Stumpf: We use Japanese ingredients and cooking methods, but we give it a much younger twist, instead of keeping it traditional. We listen to the market and then tweak our recipes slightly — like in Dubai, most of the guests like spicy food, so we tweak and give our dishes that personal touch.

Do you rely on importing ingredients or are there local products used on the menu?
Kim: It’s crucial to use original products from Japan if you want to be known for authenticity. There are also some great ingredients that can be sourced locally, which don’t affect the authenticity of the dishes. Streaming of these supplies requires meticulous planning and time management to ensure timely delivery and product quality.

Nakazato: We tend to use quite a few imported ingredients in order to achieve a certain flavour. But we do prefer local produce as well, especially seafood and certain vegetables. In the future, we would like to increase our use of local fish since they are supplied fresh, and that is always a good thing.

Gardiner: Sadly we do rely on international supply for Japanese and Asian ingredients, including vegetables, fruits, meat and seafood. You can, however, locally source things like eggs, poultry, some seafood and certain vegetables. But the sourcing patterns certainly incline towards international suppliers currently.

Stumpf: Unfortunately, the available ingredients in Dubai don’t generally work for Japanese restaurants. We import blue fin tuna and some special Japanese vegetables directly from Japan. We also work closely with our suppliers in the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo for twice a week delivery. However, there are now some organic farms that offer basic vegetables and fruits, and they are continuously improving. Also, you can find fresh seafood like grouper, snapper and squid here in cooler months.

What would you say are your biggest challenges?
Kim: As I rely on imported products, I have to ensure there is a balance between supply and demand to keep my food costs in check.

Nakazato: Presently, our biggest challenge is creating awareness about Japanese cuisine. People tend to think that it’s just about sushi and raw food, but there is a lot more to this cuisine than that. Gradually, we can see people discovering this, and we do endeavour to partake in this process of Japanese enlightenment.

Stumpf: Consistently serving quality food and service to about 250 guests every night is quite a task. The service begins from receiving the ingredients in the morning to serving the last bill every night.

What is the latest trend in Japanese cuisine?
Kim: Robatayaki. Most people think that Japanese food is all about teppanyaki, sashimi or sushi, but actually robatayaki is one of the most ancient and traditional methods of Japanese cooking. Since we are the first ones in the UAE to specialise in this field, we aim to teach people how to eat healthy through grilled specialities — in the traditional Japanese way.

Nakazato: It would be the ‘back to basics’ movement, where chefs and the public are looking to experience the kind of food that is served in Japan, as opposed to variations of the original.

Gardiner: A take on Chinese bare flavours and using traditional Japanese cooking methods.

Stumpf: The combination of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine known as ‘nikkei’ has become the latest gastronomic sensation.