Hybrid heaven: Japanese fusion cuisine taking off in Hong Kong
Japanese-Indian, Japanese-Italian, Japanese-Peruvian - hybrid cuisine is gaining popularity in the city as inventive chefs explore fresh creative combinations
In the 19th century, the Japanese came up with a term for Western-influenced cooking - they called it yoshoku. Originally it referred to meat-based dishes but is now used to describe Japanese-Western fusion cuisines, including French, Italian and American, and it also includes curry.
Today, Hongkongers have the opportunity to taste a variety of yoshoku cuisines, with restaurants serving Japanese-Italian, Japanese-Peruvian, and Japanese-Indian dishes.
Sagrantino chef-owner Takashi Yasuda learned how to cook Italian cuisine in Las Vegas. His mentor told him he needed to go to Italy to really understand it, and so Yasuda spent 18 months there, learning how to make the perfect bolognese, carbonara and spaghetti with garlic chilli oil.
He had planned to go back to Japan to open a restaurant with a friend, but when Yasuda returned, the two had different ideas of how to run the establishment and went their separate ways. Yasuda's father was in the business of exporting speakers from Hong Kong and asked his son to help out.
"Nine years ago there were no Italian-Japanese chefs here," Yasuda says. "In Tokyo there are 3,000 Italian restaurants. My father said I should open a restaurant here because I would have no competitors."
At first, Yasuda served the authentic dishes he had learned in Italy, but for two months he had no business. Then he changed tack and added tuna carpaccio to the menu - not flavoured the Italian way, with lemon juice, olive oil and capers but a Japanese-influenced one with soy sauce, garlic and black pepper. When that met with success, he started serving cold pasta dishes with seafood such as salmon, scallops and tuna.
"In Tokyo, cold pasta is very popular in the summer. It started more than 10 years ago. In Italy no one would eat cold pasta, but here in Hong Kong, six months of the year is summer season so people are looking to eat cold dishes," he says.
Then local diners caught wind of Sagrantino's intriguing cold pasta dishes and business improved. Lunchtime was busier at first, and eventually, dinner as well, as the menu and prices stayed the same throughout the day. These days Yasuda varies the menu by using seasonal fish (mackerel at the moment) in the cold pasta.
The chef says he craves Japanese food in the evening and weekends after cooking Italian all week, and gets inspiration from them. There is a natural affinity between Italian and Japanese cuisines as they both focus on the seasonality of ingredients, Yasuda says.
Another restaurant serving hyphenated Japanese is El Mercado. The Peruvian-Japanese restaurant features interesting flavour and ingredient combinations, such as ika (squid) ceviche, tataki de atun (tuna), and cochinillo con tacu tacu (crispy suckling pig with chilli lime sauce).
What may seem original in Hong Kong is what is served daily in Peruvian-Japanese restaurants in Peru, says founder and managing director of El Mercado Bartlomiej Szyniec. He says that Peruvian cuisine has evolved with waves of different people coming to the South American country, starting with the Spaniards who brought African slaves, followed by the French and Italians, then the Chinese from Guangdong, and finally the Japanese.
He says the first Japanese immigrants tried to cook their own cuisine, but were limited by the ingredients available in their new country. Over time, the cooking techniques evolved and they started incorporating different ingredients. Traditional Peruvian ceviche uses fish marinated for a long time in orange juice so the acidity changes the texture and flavour of the seafood. The Japanese changed it by adding the citrus juice at the last moment, to retain the fresh seafood flavour.
Szyniec came to Hong Kong three years ago to work at Aqua Group and concedes he didn't know much about Japanese cuisine before his arrival here. But he quickly fell in love with it, after trying a number of restaurants in town.
He quit his job and, in February, went on a trip to Spain, Cuba and South America and ended up staying in Lima for two months. "There, I saw lots of [Peruvian-Japanese] restaurants, cevicherias that only open until 5pm and they were all packed," he says.
He figured the concept would work well in Hong Kong. "The local markets here have what you would see in a market in Lima: pak choi, soy sauce,and the quality of raw fish from Japan here is amazing. I imagine Hong Kong people would accept it because it's a mix of Japanese and Chinese ingredients and they are already familiar with Spanish food."
Also, the combinations in the Peruvian-Japanese cuisine are endless, giving Szyniec and his head chef Jose Manuel a lot of freedom to create dishes that use quality ingredients and fresh fish.
While the Peruvian terms for the various dishes may seem foreign to Hong Kong diners, Szyniec says local customers are open-minded. He plans to add a few more dishes such as Peruvian-influenced sushi and maki to the menu.
Meanwhile, in Harbour City, Tiger Curry & Cafe opened at the end of July and has a steady stream of customers from morning to evening. It's the third location for Satoru Mukogawa (best known for Sushi Kuu in Central) and Buzz Concepts, having had a successful run in Pennington Street, followed by Tiger Curry Jr, both in Causeway Bay.
The bestselling dish is the combination of a thin layer of scrambled egg on a bed of rice with deep fried kurobuta pork chop, smothered in "double trouble" curry.
Mukogawa explains that while curry originated from India, each country changes the style and makes it their own. "The English add flour to make it more rich, Thai people add coconut milk. For Japanese curry, we don't add flour so it's more watery, but focuses on flavour."
He says Tiger Curry serves Osaka-style curry with 26 spices, so it tastes different from what most people expect.
"Japanese curry is normally sweet, but ours is sweet at first and then spicy. It becomes more complex as you eat it," Mukogawa says.
The chain got off to a slow start - Mukogawa thinks it's because, at first, people thought the curry was too watery. But business improved this year. "After they tried it, they had to come back because they got addicted to the complex spiciness. Ours is Indian curry twisted to the Japanese way."
The three levels of spiciness at Tiger Curry ranges from "double trouble" to "triple threat" and the stinging hot "backfired", but Mukogawa prefers the first level, otherwise the original taste is gone and it's only the spiciness that remains. He says the greasy food element of deep-fried pork in the dish also cuts the spiciness.
Tiger Curry & Cafe serves other interesting hybrid combinations such as the Japanese breakfast hotdog, featuring a hot dog with sliced cabbage on top smothered in curry sauce, mentaiko mac and cheese, and shrimp toast with onsen egg.
Back at Sagrantino, Yasuda is seeing an interesting twist with his Italian-Japanese cuisine. Up until recently guests would drink wine with their cold pasta, but nowadays they are bringing their own sake. Perhaps it's the next natural step in the evolution of Japanese hybrid cuisine.
Six Japanese crossover restaurants in Hong Kong
Sagrantino (Italian-Japanese) 5/F The Loop, 33 Wellington Street, Central, tel: 2521 5188
El Mercado (Peruvian-Japanese) 21/F, 239 Hennessy Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2388 8009
Tiger Curry & Cafe (Indian-Japanese) shop 2602, 2/F Gateway Arcade, Harbour City, 17 Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 3106 4083
Tiger Curry 14 Pennington Street, Causeway Bay, tel: 2511 1051
Tiger Curry Jr CookedDeli, City'super, Times Square, Causeway Bay
Trattoria Queen Hollywood (Italian-Japanese) 258 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, tel: 2559 6077