Change of tuna

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 March, 2011, 12:00am

The health of our customers is our number one concern,' says Erik Idos, the executive chef of Nobu InterContinental in Tsim Sha Tsui. 'The sushi chef and I made a map of where all our fish comes from. If our customers have a question about the fish, we can show them it's not even close to the affected areas.' Idos is explaining how he sources ingredients from Japan for the InterContinental hotel's premium Japanese dining outlet.

In the wake of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that precipitated the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant, chefs of top Japanese restaurants have not stopped buying Japanese ingredients. While other eateries have steered clear of Japanese imports, these high-end chefs are taking a selective approach, staying away from the hardest-hit areas of the country from around the stricken power plant. In some cases, they've had to look for alternate sources of ingredients because Japan's fishing industry has been greatly affected and the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo has been operating at limited capacity.

Radiation leaking into the air and sea from the Fukushima plant has sparked fears among the public about contamination of Japanese food imports. The Hong Kong government last week banned vegetables and dairy products from five quake-affected prefectures after samples tested were found to be up to 10 times over the radiation limit. Seawater samples from around the plant on Tuesday had levels of radioactive iodine 3,355 times the allowable limit, Japan's nuclear safety agency said yesterday, meaning the crisis shows no sign of abating.

Imai Masakazu George, executive chef of Miyabi Japanese Fine Dining in Tsim Sha Tsui, says about 90 per cent of the ingredients he used before the disaster came from Japan; now, he gets about 30 per cent from other countries.

'We will import more seafood and vegetables from other countries, such as tiger prawns from Thailand, abalone from South Africa, razor clams from Scotland, beef and lobster from the United States, eggs, abalone and beef from Australia, lobster from Indonesia and white fish from the South China Sea,' he says.

Masakazu says that because sales are down due to diners fears, he's ordering far less fresh produce and seafood, although none of his ingredients come from the hard-hit northeastern areas. The chef hails from Kyushu in the southwest of Japan, so favours ingredients from that region as well as from another less-affected area, the northernmost island of Hokkaido.

'We don't order ingredients from the affected areas. The disaster hit the northeast part of Japan, such as Fukushima and Iwate. Our ingredients come from Kyushu and Hokkaido, and our [supply of] stocks is quite stable. Oysters and abalone from Iwate can be replaced by those from Hokkaido.'

Other chefs are sourcing ingredients from other parts of the Japan, and from outside the country.

'Before the earthquake, I used a lot of ingredients from Japan - about 80 per cent,' says Yukio Takeda, chef de cuisine of Kaetsu restaurant at the Grand Hyatt in Wan Chai. 'I use Japanese soy sauce, miso, dried items such as bonito flakes and other types of fish for dashi [broth], some seaweed, vegetables, salt, and fresh fish, shellfish and meat.'

Now, he says, about half of his supplies are imported from Japan, and he's getting his fish from another part of the country. 'I used to get fish from the Tokyo area, but my supplier contacted companies in the Fukuoka area to bring fish to Hong Kong. Normally, I get my tuna from around Kyushu, in southern Japan - it's of very good quality. But now I can't get it and tuna is very important in Japanese cuisine. Usually, tuna from outside countries - Spain and Italy - would go straight to Tokyo or Osaka, but now they're going to the Kyushu area before it's flown here.'

Takeda says he used to source his vegetables from northern Japan because of the high quality, but he now buys them from the south and locally.

'Hokkaido is safe, but even before the earthquake I didn't use scallops from there; I got them from France,' Takeda adds. 'My sea urchin is beautiful, but it's not from Hokkaido - it's from Russia. My eggs are from Italy, sweet shrimp are also from Russia, the botan ebi [shrimp] are from Canada. Even before the earthquake I was using ingredients from outside Japan.'

Nobu's Idos had the good fortune to have changed fish suppliers before the nuclear crisis. 'We were lucky. We used to get our fish from the Tsukiji market, but about three months ago we changed our supplier to one in Fukuoka. So [even before the earthquake] we weren't ordering anything from the north of Japan,' he says.

'For vegetables, we try to source locally - we use some from Japan, but not a large amount - it's things like sweet potatoes and kabocha [pumpkin]. But even some of our kabocha comes from Australia.'

Idos says he has been looking farther afield for food that can rival the quality of Japanese imports. 'We're getting a lot of seafood in from Australia to see what's good, and we're trying things from Europe and the United States,' he says.

'The quality of Japanese products is very high, so if what we get [from other places] is different, we'll adapt and, if it's not as good, we'll just take it off the menu. We'll think of something.'

Idos likens the situation to starting over again, as the city's Japanese restaurants may need a contingency plan if the Hong Kong government later finds it necessary to impose a blanket ban on Japanese food imports. The current ban on some imported vegetables and dairy products has led to price rises, the chefs say, in part because the Japanese are also now being forced to import food from neighbouring countries.

'In Japan, one daikon [white radish] costs HK$80,' says Takeda, the shock clear in his voice. 'The price of cabbage has gone up, too. Some of the suppliers are getting Korean vegetables and fish - the prices are higher than in Japan, but the quality is lower. Until now, I didn't buy Korean [products], but after watching the news that vegetables in Japan might be dangerous, I've been buying some Korean vegetables. The quality is still acceptable, although, compared to that of Japan, it's not as good.'

Idos has also noticed a big increase across the board in the cost of seafood and says he is now paying 10 per cent more for tuna than he was before the nuclear crisis.

This doesn't mean higher prices for customers - at least not yet. Masakazu, for example, says he hasn't increased prices despite a 5 per cent to 10 per cent rise in some costs.

Despite the problems chefs have faced in recent weeks trying to ensure they have enough supplies to meet customers' demands, they're not complaining.

'All the Nobu chefs [at the different branches] have been discussing what's going on,' says Idos. 'The Nobu in Tokyo is the one that's most affected by all this - not through sourcing or because customers are too afraid to eat, but because they're not in the mood to go out to eat.'