April 26, 2009
Japanese food boom
Singaporeans' appetite for all things Japanese is growing - from food to products to ingredients
By Huang Lijie
Singaporeans have an insatiable hunger for Japanese food. But 13 years ago, the fare was so foreign that diners mistook ramen soup for laksa.
That was the experience when Japan's long-established Ajisen chain of ramen shops opened here.
Mr Kenichi Takahashi, 52, executive chairman and chief executive officer of Japan Foods Holding, which owns the Ajisen chain here, says: 'Nobody knew what ramen was. People would walk by the shop and say, 'It's like laksa, I don't want to pay $10 for it'.
'So I had to stand in front of the shop and explain what it is to customers.'
That is a far cry from today, with Singaporeans now so discerning that they can tell the difference between ramen noodles from different regions of Japan.
And they are bound to be bowled over by the latest taste treat: the famous Ippudo ramen chain, operated by Japan's ramen king, Mr Shigemi Kawahara, will debut here at the Mandarin Gallery in October.
The fact that Ippudo is coming here shows how Japanese food is riding an unprecedented wave of popularity here.
Underlining this is the flood of eateries that have opened.
While there are no official figures tracking the number of such eateries, restaurateurs and industry observers say the number has increased by the hundreds in the last few years.
Mr Takaaki Takagi, 56, who has been promoting the Japanese food and beverage scene here since 1977 and who owns four Japanese eateries, including Tampopo in Liang Court, says: 'In 2000, there were some 300 Japanese restaurants here, but now, my estimate is that there are more than 600.
'When I opened my restaurants in Liang Court in 2004, there were about five Japanese restaurants within a 500m radius. But now, the number is more than 40.'
The new eateries span a mind-boggling array from Japanese-themed food courts such as Ishi Mura in Selegie Road and food halls such as Shokudo Streets of Japan at The Heeren Shops, to speciality restaurants with a specific type of Japanese food such as shabu shabu (Japanese hot pot) by Honjin 7 in Adam Park, and yes, even a 'drive-thru' service for sushi and sashimi by the Sakae Sushi chain in Boon Lay Way.
And no wonder all things Japanese are a success on the food front: According to a recent study by the Nielsen consumer research group, Japanese food is the second most preferred type of cuisine among diners here, after Chinese food.
Mr Hiroshi Tatara, 63, chairman and president of the RE&S restaurant group, which owns 26 outlets here, including the fine-dining Japanese chain Kuriya, says: 'With an annual turnover of about $75 million for our restaurants, this is equivalent to having every person living in Singapore visiting one of our outlets once a year.'
This huge appetite for Japanese food products and ingredients even prompted the opening in February of a branch of the Organisation to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad (JRO).
Founded in 2007, the organisation is a non-profit outfit based in Tokyo which aims to promote Japanese foods and foodstuffs around the world. It accepts applications for membership from entities such as Japanese restaurant owners and restaurant groups, as well as Japanese food manufacturers.
Japan-mania does not just apply to eateries.
Supermarkets such as Cold Storage, for example, introduced dedicated Japanese food aisles more than five years ago, and demand has grown so much that stocks have to be replenished every week instead of once every three weeks previously.
Over at FairPrice, dedicated Japanese food sections were introduced in 2007 at selected outlets, and its range of products has jumped 20 per cent from three years ago to 1,500 items now.
Japanese food fairs at supermarkets such as Isetan, which bring in speciality produce from different regions, have also grown in popularity. Isetan's Hokkaido food fair is now held twice a year instead of once, and it is the largest outside Japan, says the supermarket's spokesman.
Mr Francis Poulose, 40, director of F&B consultancy Poulose Associates, says Italian and French food have enjoyed waves of popularity in the past, but neither comes close to rivalling the scale of the Japanese success story.
He says the Japanese wave is much more widespread because 'there are just so many Japanese restaurants out there and they offer different types of Japanese food'.
A main reason for the popularity of Japanese food here is its flavour profile, which is familiar to Singaporean tastebuds, say industry players.
Ms Lena Sim, chief executive officer of the Ministry of Food group of restaurants, which includes casual eatery chain MOF - My Izakaya, says: 'Japanese food, with its noodles and rice, and use of seasoning such as soya sauce, is acceptable to the Singaporean palate.
'It is not exotic food that people might try only once a week. It is something that they are willing to eat repeatedly.'
Increasing exposure to Japanese food culture through TV and overseas travel has also helped cultivate an appetite for Japanese food here, say restaurateurs and diners LifeStyle interviewed.
The number of Singaporeans travelling to Japan grew from 151,860 in 2007 to 167,894 last year.
Mrs Ng Wai Khuan, 42, director of Hokkaido Sandwich and Sashimi Deli in Marina Boulevard, for example, opened the cafe specialising in Hokkaido king crab sandwiches after a holiday to that northernmost island of Japan where she tried the crabs and fell in love with their taste.
Diners such as student Natalie Chiang, 20, and associate banker Chui Yong Rou, 28, say TV programmes such as Japanese Iron Chef and Japan Hour piqued their interest.
Japanese food also appeals to health-conscious diners here as items such as sashimi and sushi are minimally processed and oil is used sparingly in Japanese cooking, says Mr Sunny Lim, 50, owner of Japanese restaurant Honjin 7.
The cuisine's affordability was also cited as a reason for its popularity.
Mr Yasuo Yamaguchi, 64, executive chef of Honjin 7, and who has been in Singapore for 31 years, says a significant turning point was when Cold Storage in Takashimaya began selling sushi for less than $1 in the early 1990s. Japanese food was no longer pricey and exclusive, but catered to the mass market.
Indeed, diners here are so knowledgeable about Japanese food that restaurateurs are opening more speciality restaurants.
An example is Yoshimaru Ramen Bar, a ramen shop from Japan that opened in Holland Village and is known for its Hakata-style noodles which are thin and come in a pork bone broth.
Shimbashi Soba, a speciality soba restaurant that makes its own buckwheat noodles from scratch, has been so well received that it has opened a second outlet in Raffles City Shopping Centre recently in addition to its outlet in Paragon.
Diners are toasting the growth of the Japanese food scene.
Retired engineer Lye Hoeng Fai, 59, is encouraged by the rise of specialised Japanese eateries such as Hachi in Mohamed Ali Lane, which serves Kansai cuisine. This is because it satisfies his preference for food from the southern part of Japan, where the Kansai region is located.
Japanese swimming instructor Nakamura Naoko, 42, who has been living here for 15 years, is happy that she now has more dining choices for better quality food.
Miss Phua Wen Yi, in her 30s, who has double bachelor degrees in food science and food industry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is the author of Secrets Of Food Millionaires (2009), says: 'The market for Japanese food might get saturated and it might not continue to grow at the same rapid rate as it has for the last couple of years, but it is unlikely to become unpopular.'
Three men and their passion
Professionals who contribute to the vibrant Japanese food scene here
YASUO YAMAGUCHI, 64
Executive chef of the new shabu shabu (Japanese hot pot) speciality restaurant, Honjin 7, at the National University of Singapore Society's Guild House in Adam Park
Passionate about the art of shabu shabu, Mr Yamaguchi insists on making the dipping sauces for it - white sesame, and vinegar with ponzu (citrus-soy) - from scratch at the restaurant.
The reason? The dedicated chef feels that the sauces are the key to an enjoyable and authentic shabu shabu meal.
And Singaporeans have lapped up his attention to flavour. The Singapore permanent resident, who has lived here for 31 years, says: 'When I started cooking at a Japanese restaurant in Singapore, my customers were mostly Japanese and businessmen. Today, almost 85 per cent of my customers are Singaporeans, and many of them bring along their young children to eat at the restaurant.'
The chef, who is married to a Malaysian Chinese, was a cook at a fine-dining Japanese restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo, for 16 years before he arrived in 1978 to work at Unkai, an upscale Japanese restaurant at the now defunct Century Park Sheraton Hotel in Nassim Hill. He has two adult sons.
He was its executive chef for 26 years. When the hotel and restaurant closed, he ran his own casual Japanese eatery, Shin Unkai, at International Plaza before he was asked to join Honjin 7.
The new eatery is opened by the Sun Restaurant Group, which also owns Hainanese charcoal steamboat eatery, 7th Storey Restaurant, with outlets in Wilkie Road and the Marina Barrage.
He says Singaporean diners in the 1970s and 1980s were mostly 'scared of eating raw fish and sushi', so to tempt them, he would sneak a piece of sushi onto their plate and gently nudge them to give it a try.
And often, the first bite was all it took to convert them.
He says the large number of Japanese restaurants that have opened in the last few years has resulted in stiffer competition.
So, his strategy has been to impress his guests with his attentive service.
He says: 'I always smile at my customers, and I try to remember their names, and what types of food they like and dislike.'
He lives with his family in an apartment in Sembawang and returns to Japan yearly.
He has picked up a smattering of Mandarin and Hokkien over the years, and likes Singaporean food such as Hainanese chicken rice, laksa and fish head curry.
He also enjoys his job here too much to retire soon.
He says: 'I like being surrounded by young diners and staff. They keep me active and energised.'
TOMOYUKI KITAZOE, 40
Mixologist and partner in the new alfresco bar, Orgo, at the Esplanade
It took little to persuade the Japanese celebrity mixologist to move to Singapore last September to open Orgo.
Mr Kitazoe, the brand ambassador for Grey Goose vodka and Chivas Regal in Japan, says: 'I want to push myself to the next level and Singapore is a good testing ground for my concept of an outdoor bar specialising in cocktails that use fresh ingredients, which I plan to launch internationally.'
A mixologist is someone who has specialist knowledge in mixing cocktails and serving them with flair.
And Mr Kitazoe certainly has that.
The owner of four Bar Rage watering holes in Japan, he is known for creating cocktails that spurn artificial flavourings and colouring for the natural sweetness of fresh fruit.
Indeed, the wide range of fruit available in Singapore got his creative juices going when he was on a holiday here in 2007.
He says: 'It would have been a pity not to be able to work with the different types of fruits available in Singapore. I've never seen soursop in Japan and mangosteen is very expensive there because it is not commonly available.'
Both feature on his cocktail list at Orgo - soursop and calamansi martini, and mangosteen and mascarpone cheese martini.
For the father of a two-year-old daughter and a four-month-old son, Singapore's top-notch education system was another draw.
He says: 'I don't have to worry about my children's education here.'
He plans to move his wife and children, now living in Japan, to Singapore when the children are a little older.
For now, he stays alone in an apartment in town and returns to Japan every two months to 'touch base' with his Bar Rage operations as well as fulfil his duties as a brand ambassador.
He adds that he has been adapting to life here and has acquired a taste for Singaporean food such as chilli crab, which he enjoys at a stall in the Old Airport Road Food Centre.
TERUYOSHI ABE, 60
Owner of Sakuraya Fish Market
It's been 23 years since he first set up his import business here, and Mr Teruyoshi Abe is still excited about fresh seafood.
'These clams are very good for miso soup,' enthuses the owner of Sakuraya Fish Market, holding up a plate of Asari clams. 'A lot of customers ask for this in miso soup'.
There is plenty for him to smile about these days. The Chiba native imports sashimi-grade seafood from the famous Tsukiji market in Tokyo and sells it at his two fish markets in The Village Centre in Buona Vista and Parkway Parade, as well as his full-service restaurant at Anchorpoint.
The business makes about $7 million in sales annually and he hopes to reach $10 million over the next two years.
Freshness is paramount to Mr Abe, whose business goes through 5 to 6 tonnes of seafood every 11/2 months.
Fish sells quickly at his markets and eatery and is usually gone in less than three days.
He offers 30 to 40 types of fish, including rare species such as half mackerel, sauri and halfbeak, and otoro or fatty tuna is the most popular. He says Singaporeans now understand raw seafood better.
Regular customers often come in on weekends asking for 'Hokkaido special menus, sushi and sashimi' after seeing these items on television shows such as Japan Hour.
His company has become a family business, now that his Singapore-educated children are helping out. His daughter Miyuki, 34, does public relations work while his son Masaki, 30, helms the kitchen. His wife Maoko, 60, is in charge of home deliveries.
Their customer base has shifted over the years, from a 99 per cent Japanese clientele at the start to a 90 per cent local following today.
'I still want to expand into the casual-dining market,' says Mr Abe, who has already been approached to open at a new Serangoon location. 'They're not high-end places but the quality must always be there.'
Food Halls/Food Courts
Manpuku Japanese Gourmet Town
Where: 10 Tampines Central 1, 03-16/19, Tampines 1, tel: 6789-6810, open: 11.30am to 9.45pm daily
What: The fruit tarts, which come in flavours such as melon ($7.80 per piece or $75 for a whole tart, main picture, right) are popular here. For something savoury, try chicken skewers ($1.80 each).
Where: 1 Selegie Road, 02-05, PoMo Centre, tel: 6338-8755, open: 11.30am to 9.30pm daily; 930 Yishun Avenue 2, 03-47/50, Northpoint Shopping Centre, tel: 6484-3278, open: 11am to 9.30pm daily
What: This Japanese-themed food court run by the Suki group has an extensive range of Japanese food, including yakiniku beef rice ($4.90 as part of a set).
Charcoal Grill (yakiniku, teppanyaki and robatayaki)
Where: Three outlets islandwide, including 29 Lorong Mambong, tel: 6466-4001, open: 5.30 to 11pm, Mon to Thu, noon to 3pm and 5.30 to 11.30pm, Fri and Sat, noon to 3pm and 5 to 11pm, Sun
What: Those who want to cook their own Japanese barbecue meals can do so here. Customers can order sets such as the botan set ($138 for two persons), including meat, rice, salad and dessert or order a la carte items such as the Gyu-Kaku prime wagyu plate ($139 for 450g).
Where: 2 Keppel Bay Vista, Marina at Keppel Bay, tel: 6271-7414, open: noon to 2.30pm and 5.30 to 11pm, Tue to Sun, closed on Mon
What: Customers can opt for teppanyaki items such as the trio wagyu ($150) or choose robatayaki dishes such as the signature charcoal grilled kinki fish (from $70).
Yoshimaru Ramen Bar
Where: 31 Lorong Liput, Holland Village, tel: 6463-3132, open: 11am to 11pm, Mon to Thu and Sun, 11 to 1am, Fri, Sat and eve of public holidays
What: This ramen bar from Hakata, Kyushu, serves a variety of thin ramen noodles in rich tonkotsu (pork bone) broth, including the tonkotsu dan dan mian (above, $12).
Where: 333 Orchard Road, Mandarin Gallery, opening in October
What: This outlet from Japan's ramen king, Shigemi Kawahara, will offer six to seven types of ramen initially, including its signature shiromaru moto-aji, a white pork-based broth ramen, and akamaru shin-aji, a bolder flavoured, spicy, red broth. Prices will likely range between $14 and $15 a bowl.
Where: Raffles City, B1-06/07, 252 North Bridge Road, tel: 6337-8852, open: noon to 10pm daily; 290 Orchard Road, B1-41, The Paragon, tel: 6735-9882, open: 11.30am to 9.30pm daily
What: Its soba (buckwheat noodles, are made from scratch at the store more than 15 times a day to ensure freshness. Menu items include oroshi soba with grated daikon ($16.20) and chilled seiro soba ($12.20).
Where: 6 Eu Tong Sen Street, 03-84, The Central, tel: 6221-8860, open: 11.30am to 11pm daily
What: Offers three degrees of spiciness. Popular items include tonkatsu curry rice ($16.80) and ebi omelette rice ($14.80).
Where: 6 Eu Tong Sen Street, 03-93/95, The Central, tel: 6534-9984, open: 11.30am to 3pm and 5 to 10.30pm daily
What: This restaurant chain from Nagoya specialises in Japanese curry noodles such as the renkon chips curry udon ($15.30) which comes topped with lightly fried lotus root.
Shokudo Japanese Coffee House
Where: 200 Victoria Street, 01-53, Bugis Junction, tel: 6338-9216, open: 11.30am to 10.30pm daily
What: Specialises in Japanese-style Western grills and chops. A must-try is its ebi tempura cheeseburger ($10.80).
Pasta de Waraku
Where: Four outlets, including 6 Eu Tong Sen Street, 02-82/83, The Central, tel: 6534-8085, open: 11.30am to 11pm daily
What: Healthy Japanese-style pastas; crowd favourites include vongole spaghetti ($12.80).
Where: Three outlets including 154 West Coast Road, B1-57, West Coast Plaza, tel: 6777-1978, open: 9.30am to 10pm, Mon to Fri, 8.30am to 10pm, Sat, Sun and public holidays.
What: A variety of Japanese breads and pastries. The wassants ($4 for 10) and coronets ($1.30 each) are popular.
Yamazaki Boulangerie Chaude
Where: 10 Tampines Central 1, B1-14, Tampines 1, tel: 6260-5909, open: 10am to 10pm daily
What: Bestsellers include jumbo strawberry cream puff and jumbo green tea puff ($1.60 each).
Hokkaido Sandwich and Sashimi Deli
Where: 4 Marina Boulevard, 01-33 The Sail at Marina Bay, tel: 6509-0685, open: 8.30am to 8pm daily
What: Its speciality is king crab. Try the king crab sandwich (below, $10) or king crab chirashi ($16.50, with complimentary miso soup).
Where: 19 Cuppage Road, Cuppage Terrace, tel: 6732-8083, open: 10am to 10.30pm, Mon to Thu, 10am to midnight, Fri to Sun
What: This cafe, run by the Sakae group, prides itself on siphon coffee (from $5.90), brewed using a glass apparatus and made with coffee beans from the Ueshima Coffee Company.
MOF - Japanese Sweets & Coffee
Where: Seven outlets including 154 West Coast Road, 01-48, West Coast Plaza, tel: 6778-1046, open: 11.30am to 10pm, Mon to Thu and Sun, noon to 11pm, Fri and Sat
What: Specialises in Japanese desserts such as macha imo ($6.80), which consists of Hokkaido soft-serve ice cream, Hokkaido red beans and Japanese sweet potato.
Where: 1 Raffles Link, B1-04, Citylink Mall, tel: 6238-1683, open: 10am to 10pm daily
What: This ice cream parlour from Japan carries a line of ice cream with mix-ins ($5 for a small cup) and ice cream parfaits ($5.90 each) in flavours such as mont blanc.
Where: 177 River Valley Road, B1-30/30A, Liang Court, tel: 6836-6960, open: 10.30am to 10pm daily
What: A variety of Japanese-style sweet and savoury crepes including strawberry banana crepe ($5.80), matcha shiratama azuki gelato crepe ($6.80) and chicken ham and cheese crepe ($4.80).