Go easy on the wasabi

British foodies can't use their chopsticks fast enough, but would 'our' Japanese restaurants pass muster in Japan?

Knowing about Japanese food has never been cooler in Britain, but you have to know this one thing: there is hardly a restaurant in these islands whose menu would pass muster as "real Japanese" with the formidably choosy diners of Japan.

Knowing about Japanese food has never been cooler in Britain, but you have to know this one thing: there is hardly a restaurant in these islands whose menu would pass muster as "real Japanese" with the formidably choosy diners of Japan. Consider the case of Nobu Matsuhisha, perhaps the most famous Japanese chef and restaurateur in the world, whose New York-London-Milan-Malibu chain, part owned by Robert De Niro, is the expensive eatery of choice for stars with love affairs they wish to publicise. When he started, Nobu used to offer gaijin (foreigners) pure Japanese food, but it was commercial suicide; foreign palates needed a bit of East-West fusion to ease them into the ways of Japanese cuisine.

Transport one of Nobu's European or American restaurants back to Tokyo intact and it would raise Japanese eyebrows. Wealthy Japanese would not baulk at paying a fortune for top-quality dining, but they would decline to pay this much for what, to purists, is a vulgarised smorgasbord. Sushi and tepannyaki on the same menu? You might as well marry pâté de foie gras to chicken korma.

This is not to pick on Nobu, the biggest player in London's burgeoning Japanese restaurant scene. The vast majority of the UK's Japanese restaurants cheerfully offend against a basic rule of Japanese cuisine - in fact Japanese life in general - which is to choose your specialism and concentrate on practising it to perfection.

If your business is noodles, your best business decision is - like the hero of the famous food-film Tampopo - to strive tirelessly to achieve the perfect clarity of soup and crunchiness of buckwheat noodle. If it's sushi, then a seven-year apprenticeship is essential: learning to choose your cuts at Tsukiji market on a cold Tokyo morning; how much pressure to apply as your trusty knife cuts through the fish flesh.

For restaurateurs catering to gaijin, economic logic runs the other way. They can only thrive by offering their customers Japanese cuisine's greatest hits: teppanyaki, tempura, sushi, soba and udon. For the fast-growing number of Japanese food aficionados in Britain who know there is far more to Japanese food than sushi, the existing restaurant scene allows them to dabble in new taste experiences. When a critical mass of customers, and the fashion-spotters of the food press, have caught up, then we should be prepared for a second wave of the Japanese food revolution, with cuisine-specific venues, equivalent of today's Sichuan or Kashmiri specialists.

"One day all Japanese restaurants in London will be specialised restaurants," says Nakao San, sushi chef at the Gonbei restaurant in King's Cross. Present at the creation of London's first Japanese restaurant (Hiroko, near Bond Street, in 1972), he now teaches would-be sushi masters from around the world. But he makes no secret of his belief that to be a good sushi chef, it helps to be Japanese.

"People who pay £100 for sushi at Nobu are not necessarily going to be experts on fish, but I think that generally British people's appreciation is becoming more sophisticated and knowledgeable and that eventually they will be as urusai (pernickety) as the Japanese. They won't want to see beef teriyaki on a sushi restaurant menu."

British food culture has a long way to go before it can support specialist regional food, not least because real Japanese cookery shines a harsh light on the quality of its ingredients and mercilessly exposes the second-rate stuff that wholesalers will fob off on restaurateurs. Any Japanese chef in the UK will tell you about the difficulties of getting the right kind of bluefin tuna in Europe; but even the ingredients that we can produce are often not up to snuff.

"Our ambition has been to demonstrate that there is Japanese food beyond sushi," says Cary Bush, who runs the Sakura restaurant in Bath with his Japanese wife. They specialise in the more homely but tasty cuisine of shabu shabu and sukiyaki, in which thin strips of meat are cooked in a communal hot pot at the table. "Getting ingredients of the right quality is a nightmare," he says. "We went through four butchers before we found one who understood what we wanted, and it was the same with vegetables; the greengrocers just didn't get the message about the quality required."

Not only do the suppliers sometimes not get the point about freshness, but some British diners have yet to get the point that "exotic" eastern food does not always have to be about strong flavours.

"British diners are becoming more sophisticated in their appreciation of the world beyond sushi and respond well to our attempts to educate them, with things like unagi (eel) and edamame (fresh boiled soy beans)," says Shigemi Matsuda, Hiroshima-born chef at the Jin Kichi restaurant in Hampstead. "What does amaze me is how much wasabi (hot horseradish sauce) they want on their sushi. I tell them it already has it under the fish, but they still want more. It's like a macho contest to see how they can stand having their eyes water."

It is proof of sorts of how Japanese food has penetrated the British cultural orbit. Once the preserve of city bankers on expense accounts, it is now partaken in the spirit of competitive vindaloo-eating on a lad's night out.

Japan on a plate


151 King's Cross Road, London (020-7278 0619)

Not the glitziest, and certainly not the priciest, but still one of the best sushi restaurants in London. It's a magnet for Japanese businessmen, which has to be a good sign. The man with the knives, Takao Sensei, has been in London for 30 years after serving a hard apprenticeship man and boy and is unimpressed by sushi fashion.


33b Walm Lane, Willesden, London (020-8459 2971)

Willesden might not be the first place you would look for a good Japanese restaurant but cognoscenti come from miles around to get an authentically Japanese experience.


Windsor Hotel, 69 Great Pulteney Street, Bath (01225 422100)

Cook-at-your-own-table specialists, a rarity in Britain and especially so in the West Country. The owners, a British-Japanese couple, work hard to source the best ingredients for heart-and-stomach-warming Japanese favourites such as sukiyaki and shabu shabu, cooked in bubbling vegetable broth. Delicious.

Samsi Japanese Yakitori Bar

38 Whitworth Street, Manchester (0161 279 0022)

Expensive but plush, advanced booking usually necessary. A rare UK example of a yakitoriya, or grilled chicken shop. Succulent pieces of chicken (and other meats, including kidney) are cooked on skewers, with optional peppers, onion, and Japanese version of barbecue sauce. Washed down with cold Kirin beer, there is nothing finer.


West Richmond Street, Edinburgh (0131 668 3847)

Excellent value, and highly praised friendly bar and bistro, serving a good cross-section of the wide range of Japanese food types. Has a loyal following, and also does takeaways.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Assistant Manager

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hotel in Chadderton is a p...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Content Assistant / Copywriter

    £15310 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £24000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Situated in the heart of Bradfo...

    Day In a Page

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk
    Nepal earthquake: One man's desperate escape from Everest base camp after the disaster

    Escape from Everest base camp

    Nick Talbot was sitting in his tent when the tsunami of snow and rock hit. He was lucky to live, unlike his climbing partner just feet away...
    Adopting high fibre diet could dramatically cut risk of bowel cancer, says study

    What happened when 20 Americans swapped diets with 20 Africans?

    Innovative study in the US produces remarkable results
    Blake Lively and 'The Age of Adaline': Gossip Girl comes
of age

    Gossip girl comes of age

    Blake Lively is best known for playing an affluent teenager. Her role as a woman who is trapped forever at 29 is a greater challenge
    Goat cuisine: Kid meat is coming to Ocado

    Goat cuisine

    It's loved by chefs, ethical, low in fat and delicious. So, will kid meat give lamb a run for its money?
    14 best coat hooks

    Hang on: 14 best coat hooks

    Set the tone for the rest of your house with a stylish and functional coat rack in the hallway
    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?