Food & Drink: A beginner tackles Japanese food: Clutching her chopsticks, Emily Green takes a crash course in wasabi, sashimi and sushi, guided by someone who knows which way up the menu goes

I HAD not met Fumiya Sawa before he offered, through a mutual friend, to teach me about Japanese food. He wore a baggy suit and handsome tie; he was younger and taller than I had expected - altogether more Western. His logic was simple: he had learnt some of our ways, would I like to learn some of his?

He was too polite to say it was high time that I did, for there is no doubt that Japanese food has arrived. Not long ago, a Japanese meal was an expensive rarity - a trip to Suntory in St James's or the Hilton in Kensington. Now you can buy sushi for pounds 1.50 in Piccadilly Circus Underground station. Above ground in Sogo, the spanking new Japanese-owned department store, it appears on the menu of the cafe, along with Black Forest gateaux.

Fumiya mentioned that even the best restaurants often had inexpensive set lunches, and suggested we meet at Miyama, 38 Clarges Street, London W1 (071-499 2443), near his office in Berkeley Square.

Like many Japanese, Fumiya has long been familiar with Western food. It even infiltrated his family table at home in Osaka. One brother preferred Western breakfasts of Kellogg's cornflakes and orange juice. The other liked the traditional Japanese breakfast of grilled fish and miso soup. His mother used to pick from each.

Miyama, he explained, was not an authentically Japanese restaurant: this is impossible in London. In Tokyo, they would have speciality restaurants - sushi bars, eel bars, noodle bars, chicken grills and so on. By necessity here, single kitchens cater for most styles of food. Hence a variety of menus arrived, an A4 photocopied one exclusively in Japanese characters. I only noticed that I was holding it the wrong way when I saw Fumiya read his horizontally.

The sushi chef at Miyama is very good, said Fumiya; the fish is fresh and cut beautifully so as not to 'damage any of the cells'. Best for this is a ceramic, not steel, knife. Good fish chefs are rare, he added, and, like their Western counterparts, can be arrogant.

From the bilingual menus we settled on the sashimi one (raw fish), pounds 13, a tempura (fried) dish and several dishes from Fumiya's inscrutable photocopy. They were quite delicious: a small roll of blanched spinach with sesame seeds with a slightly fishy dressing. A small tofu 'roast', about half the size of a Mars Bar, came sizzling hot, the coat topped with finely julienned spring onions and seasoned with teriyaki sauce.

Of these palate-ticklers, most interesting to me was a simple dish of green beans. The Japanese eat most things lightly cooked, but these were well cooked to eke out that gutsy, earthy flavour, then spiced again with a slightly fishy sauce.

I studied Fumiya as he dealt with the next course, prising the lid off a red cup. On top of the lid were finely minced fresh ginger and a lump of wasabi, that hot green horseradish puree. Inside were moist buckwheat noodles. He appeared to manoeuvre the ginger and wasabi into the noodles with his chopsticks. I followed suit. As my eyes watered and nose ran, I realised Fumiya had avoided taking much of the wasabi. I had heard somewhere it was a mortal insult to blow one's nose at a Japanese table. I fled to the lavatory.

The sashimi was a revelation. Unlike sushi, which involves various toppings on rice, sashimi is trimmed and cut raw fish with a garnish of cooling, julienned radish called mooli or daikon, lemon, wasabi and a dish of light soy sauce. Here it was tuna, salmon, yellow tail and turbot, the latter pressed like butterfly wings around the lemon wedge.

Studying Fumiya, I learnt that wasabi is not spread directly on the fish, but mixed sparingly with the soy sauce, into which the fish is then dipped. The different meats were cool, rich and savoury; I had never so fully registered their entirely individual tastes.

Fumiya had tempura - fried carrots, beans and prawns accompanied by a light sauce of water, rice wine and fish essence to which he added some chopped ginger. The vegetables were crisp, nearly raw, beneath their great puffs of fried batter. For dessert, we were brought a dish of ripe cherries. The cost, including mineral water, tea, VAT and service was pounds 19 each.

If Miyama was polite, Wagamama, 4 Streatham Street, London WC1 (071-323 9223) was exhilarating. Loosely translated, the name means 'greedy': certainly it is the only place in town where 20 chopstick-wielding Londoners sit at refectory tables devouring noodles from oversized bowls.

It is a ramen restaurant, a Japanese spin on Chinese peasant dishes of noodle soups, enhanced by various ingredients. 'In Tokyo,' says Fumiya, 'it is a meal for a student, or anyone.' In London, it attracts students and young office workers.

The restaurant, designed by the minimalist architect John Pawson, is lean and bright like a sleek school canteen. It is very health-conscious. Cigarettes are put out at the entrance before descending into the basement dining room. Hip young waiters directed us to our seats. Our order was pressed into a small computerised calculator which transmitted it to the kitchen. 'These machines are very popular in Tokyo,' said Fumiya. They're fun here, too.

There was beer and wine, but the most popular tipple was a 'raw' drink, consisting mostly of liquefied carrot and, at a guess, courgettes. This sort of thing, Fumiya surmised, came to Japan from California. He ordered us a selection of dishes - in English. Only one of the staff appeared to be Japanese.

Hiyashi chuka means cool Chinese in Japanese, and it is delicious. Cold noodles came with a bit of soup, roast chicken, sliced cucumber, sliced carrots and a good dab of what seemed like Colman's mustard. 'It could be Japanese mustard,' said Fumiya, 'but the Japanese like Colman's'

Dumplings, I expect filled with minced pork, were perfect - slippery and fresh, with a soy dipping sauce. Spare rib ramen was a huge pot of what tasted like chicken noodle soup, with a plate of tough ribs that arrived 25 minutes later. The bill was pounds 9 each; a light lunch could cost pounds 5.

It was on to a grittier and more authentic setting for the next meal. The basement of the Japan Centre, 66-68 Brewer Street, London W1 (071-439 8035) is a grocery shop-cum-bookstore-cum-caff. Orders were placed at the till and meals were eaten at a dark, hot luncheon counter. Westerners should refer to the colour snapshots of dishes; luckily, the cashier is patient. A robust lunch of, say, grilled eel on rice in Size A costs pounds 3.80; Size B pounds 5.80.

Fumiya had said that Friday night at Arisugawa, 20 Percy Street, London W1 (071-636 8913) would be a festive business. He was not wrong. I was one of two Westerners in the restaurant, and one of the few female guests in a sea of businessmen. To the left of the entrance, a large party sat cross-legged on a tatami mat in a private room. Single diners sat at stools on a long bar. To the right was a network of tables where the diners' legs disappeared through a false floor, and where the waitresses tended tables kneeling and shoeless.

Bell's whisky was flowing freely. A raffle was being held. I won a beer mug and some rice crackers; Fumiya won a bottle of sake. Finally, to much commotion, a table of revellers won the top prize, a trip to Paris. Lovely waitresses worked this funhouse in traditional kimonos, always composed and cheerful.

Fumiya ordered fermented tofu soup, topped with a raw egg that cooks only slightly from the heat of the stock. I was intrigued by this bland, slippery dish, but could not negotiate it with chopsticks. A set chicken dinner was pounds 20; expect to spend pounds 30 all in.

At each meeting, Fumiya presented me with a small gift. Tofu mix. Bonito flakes. Finally, a little guide to London's Japanese restaurants and shops, The Red Directory (Cross Media, pounds 5).

(Photographs omitted)

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Day In a Page

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world