Soy successful

Do you know your sashimi from your sushi? Your nigiri from your nori? If not, it's about time you learnt, says Simon Beckett - Japanese cuisine could soon be as common on our high streets as fish and chips
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It wasn't so very long ago that Japanese food was regarded in the UK as something of an oddity. We were a nation that liked our fish battered with chips, not raw, for heaven's sake. Now it seems as if you can't walk down a high street without falling over a noodle bar, while bento boxes (the Japanese equivalent of a packed lunch) have become the latest takeaway trend. Even supermarket chains such as Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Sainsbury's have started selling ranges of sushi.

It wasn't so very long ago that Japanese food was regarded in the UK as something of an oddity. We were a nation that liked our fish battered with chips, not raw, for heaven's sake. Now it seems as if you can't walk down a high street without falling over a noodle bar, while bento boxes (the Japanese equivalent of a packed lunch) have become the latest takeaway trend. Even supermarket chains such as Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Sainsbury's have started selling ranges of sushi.

There are around 150 Japanese restaurants and sushi bars in London alone, and most major UK towns and cities now boast at least one. Last August saw the opening in Cardiff of Zushi, Wales' first kaiten sushi bar, where diners help themselves to individual plates that trundle past on a rotating conveyor belt. It's the second Japanese restaurant to be launched in the city by managing director Lestyn Evans, who lived in Japan for 10 years and has a Japanese wife. "Japanese food has always been perceived as exotic, and out of reach for most people," Evans says. "We opened Izakaya, a traditional Japanese tavern, five years ago, and we've noticed that in that time, Japanese food has become more and more popular. It's primarily sushi that has really taken off. It's new to most people in Wales and Cardiff, but the reaction has been very good."

When it comes to embracing Japanese food, the UK as a whole is lagging behind countries such as the US and Australia, where it's been popular for 20 years or more. Over here, there's still a common misconception that sushi is just raw fish. In fact, that's sashimi, which is thinly sliced pieces of raw seafood, such as tuna, mackerel or octopus. While sushi may also contain uncooked fish, its main ingredient is vinegared rice. Originally thought to have been developed as a method of preserving food, the rice is shaped into bite-sized pieces with either raw fish or vegetables such as pepper, cucumber or avocado. There are several different types of sushi, such as nigiri, which is a finger of rice topped with fish or vegetables, and maki, where the rice is rolled in nori (dried seaweed). Dipped in soy sauce and wasabi - a hot horseradish paste - and served with slices of pickled ginger to cleanse the palate, eating sushi is a sensual business that's about textures as much as tastes.

"Japanese food is very popular right now because people think sushi is cool. But behind its image, sushi is very healthy and also very skilful to make," says Yukiko Takahashi, one of the organisers of the Original Sushi Competition. It started in 2001, and is open to all age groups (last year's winner was a 15-year-old schoolgirl). It's now part of Eat-Japan 2005, a new festival that celebrates Japanese food and culture, culminating with the competition final in October. The aim is to encourage a more creative approach to sushi, and winning recipes in the past have included mushroom sushi, sushi eggs benedict and miso mozzarella sushi. "Sushi is very adaptable," Takahashi says. "It doesn't have to be traditional."

But sushi's adaptability doesn't in itself explain why Japanese food in general has become so fashionable of late. Chef Rainer Becker, who cut his teeth at the Park Hyatt hotel in Tokyo, opened the award-winning Zuma in London three years ago. He followed that up last year with Roka, a restaurant specialising in robatayaki cuisine in which the food is grilled over a brazier. He claims that the appeal of Japanese food is down to a number of factors. "It's the whole experience. You don't eat big plates of it, it's not three conventional courses. With Japanese food you share it, you can order small dishes. So you need more sensory experience, more flavour. "

For all the virtues of Japanese cuisine, however, Becker believes the reason behind its current popularity can be summed up in one word: Nobu. The Park Lane restaurant in London's Metropolitan Hotel was the first European venture of the celebrated Japanese chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, whose fans include the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna and Tom Cruise. Launched in 1997, its fusion of classic Japanese cookery with South American influences, not to mention the fact that Robert De Niro was one of Mitsuhisa's partners, helped brand it immediately as one of the coolest places on London's culinary map. More importantly, it had the substance to accompany the style, reflected by it being awarded a Michelin star within its first year. "I think Nobu really opened the doors to modern Japanese food, and made my life easier," says Becker.

Not just his. The increasing number of Japanese restaurants has meant that it's become much easier for restaurateurs to buy the products they need. Sea urchin isn't the sort of thing stocked by your average wholesaler, and even less exotic seafood needs to be extremely fresh if it's to be safely eaten raw. "When you have only a few restaurants serving a particular food, the supplier has a hard time getting small quantities from the native country," Becker says. "But now, because of the success of Japanese food, you can get anything you want."

While there's no danger of sushi replacing chicken tikka masala as the British national dish any time soon, the British taste for Japanese cuisine is still growing. This summer will see the Wasabi Sushi and Bento chains open four more takeaways, while the past 18 months has seen Yo! Sushi venture outside London for the first time, launching outlets in Manchester and Birmingham as part of its plan to have 30 sites across the UK by 2007. With the Ah-So restaurant in Norwich opening franchises in Cambridge, Chelmsford, Bishop's Stortford and Reading, and the first fully fledged Japanese and sushi restaurants recently appearing in locations including Middlesbrough, Belfast and Sheffield (Etsuko, Zen and WasabiSabi respectively), perhaps the bento box may yet give the bacon buttie a run for its money.

For further information on the Original Sushi Competition and Eat-Japan 2005, visit www.sushicompetition.com and www.eat-japan.com

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