What’s behind the Japanese food trend?

27 April 2021, 15:03 PM
  • When it comes to Japanese dining, customers are growing in confidence finds Sally-Jayne Wright
What’s behind the Japanese food trend?

Now that sushi is as familiar as cheese ‘n’ pickle, we’re branching out. We’ve eaten at Wagamama, Itsu and Yo!, and we want to have a go ourselves. Japanese cookbooks are launching as quickly as Yo! Sushi is replenishing sashimi on the belt: last year saw The Japanese Table by Sofia Hellsten; Japanese in 7 by Kimiko Barber; Vegan Japan Easy, by former Masterchef winner Tim Anderson. A Mintel report in February 2019 showed more than one in five UK adults who had eaten ethnic in a restaurant or ordered ethnic takeaway in the previous three months “would be very interested in trying out Japanese ramen (wheat noodles with toppings)”.

What’s behind the Japanese cuisine trend?

Eating out plus a growing awareness of Japanese culture, whether it’s the sweater-rolling, tidying-up guru Marie Kondo or the Tokyo Olympics. “Cooking as a hobby is also a factor,” says Helen Best-Shaw, owner of the fussfreeflavours.com cookery blog. “People may not bother to cook on a weeknight - preferring ready meals - but they will cook a themed feast at the weekend.”

What makes Japanese food unique?

Japanese food is seen as healthy, too. The long lives of the Japanese have been linked to their traditional food products of green tea, soy, seaweed, raw fish, matcha and fermented foods like miso.

So we’re aiming beyond sushi?

Yes, we aspire to make katsu, teriyaki, yaki udon and ramen. The company Clearspring saw a 24% rise in sales of Japanese noodles (year-on-year to September 2019, Nielsen).

Isn’t Japanese cuisine fiddly with lots of special ingredients?

Sourcing Japanese food is easier now thanks to online retailers such as souschef.co.uk, and there are videos on YouTube and social media to show us what to do. Even so, many of us need lots of hand-holding. This explains the rise of meal kits and cook-in sauces. Itsu, Yo!, Blue Dragon, Sharwoods and S&B have all launched them. Even Marks & Spencer has a two-minute Ramen Noodle Pot - simply add water for a savoury Japanese-style soup with egg noodles and veg. Founded in 2014, Miso Tasty Ltd - makers of miso cooking pastes, noodle and soup kits - launched a new katsu curry kit in November.

What is katsu?

A cross between chip shop curry sauce and tikka masala. It’s so popular that Aldi recently sold a Chicken Katsu Kiev.

Which Japanese ingredients sell best and when?

“Organic White Miso Paste,” says Ellie Minch, sales manager at Miso Tasty, “After it was used by Jamie on TV, sales increased overnight - they haven’t slowed since.” Miso soups, ramen, teas and yaki udon (noodle stir fry) kits sell best in winter and in cities. Planet Organic’s best-sellers “by some distance” are the Clearspring seaweed snacks, Toasted Nori Strips and Organic Seaveg Crispies. Clearspring’s top performer is Organic Japanese Silken & Soft Tofu; as you’d expect, there’s a spike during Veganuary.

How can we compete with supermarket ‘world food’ ranges?

Surprise customers by selling something grown in Britain. The Wasabi Company offers award-winning own-label wasabi mustard, mayos and even a wasabi vodka, along with an impressive range of authentic Japanese ingredients. Be adventurous. Try Clearspring’s new Organic Yuzu Ponzu, a savoury condiment based on a citrus fruit with a complex flavour. There are also three new miso soup paste flavours - Ginger & Turmeric, Creamy Sesame and Hot & Spicy. Be knowledgeable and helpful. Show cooks how to use up Japanese ingredients to give British recipes a twist: rice vinegar, miso, sesame seeds and mirin in dressings; tamari and nori sprinkles on avo toast; miso paste in chocolate desserts. Remind them soba (buckwheat) noodles and tamari are gluten-free.

What should customers drink with their Japanese cuisine?

Sake - fermented rice wine. At 14- 16% ABV, it is far less alcoholic than most people think. Serve chilled, room temperature or warm. The Wasabi Company has a range of Japanese teas including sencha, matcha and UK-grown green and purple shiso.

Sorry, we’re much too busy to explain every Japanese ingredient…

So “look for products that are labelled well so their use is apparent,” advises Charlie Turnbull of delishops.co.uk. You don’t want to be left with slow or unsold stock.

I’ve thought of promoting my Japanese food range during the Tokyo Olympics

Good thinking. There’s also the cherry blossom festival of Sakura in early April, Father’s Day and Christmas. Cooking kits and Japanese knives make great gifts. Create in-store theatre with Japanese incense, flowers, colourful tableware and cookbooks; Clearspring can help with in-store tastings, display units and recipe leaflets.

Will the Japanese food trend last?

Undoubtedly, because wellness, fermented food, hobby cooking and more adventurous eating are macro trends. Meat eating was against the law in Japan for over 250 years, so their dishes are well suited to flexitarian eating. For confident cooks, there’s a world to explore, and that’s before you even get started on fusion. How’d you fancy a Japanese-Italian pizza?

This article was originally published in Speciality Food’s April 2020 issue. Download the latest issue for free here.

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