May 8, 2015 1:00 pm JST
Food trend

Japanese cuisine increasingly popular in US

YUICHIRO KANEMATSU, Nikkei staff writer

SILICON VALLEY -- Japanese food is finding favor with people all over the U.S., from its cities to the countryside. It is also occasionally being tweaked to suit local palates.

     The cuisine has attracted much attention in recent years among Americans. A movie featuring Sukiyabashi Jiro, a three Michelin star sushi restaurant in the subway of Tokyo's upscale Ginza shopping area, brought Japan's food culture much fanfare. Even a guidebook for those with reservations at the restaurant was published.

     While some U.S. culinary schools offer Japanese cuisine, many instructors have never trained in Japan.

     Paul Qui opened his upmarket restaurant, Qui, in Austin, Texas, in 2013. The establishment incorporates Japanese cuisine inspired by his visit to Sukiyabashi Jiro three years ago.

     Qui won the James Beard Award, the most prestigious U.S. restaurant prize. "In such a small space, an intimate relationship is formed with the customer who sits immediately in front. Just three people make all the sushi. I loved whole experience," Qui said about his experience at Sukiyabashi Jiro.

     At Qui, seats are lined up along both sides of the kitchen. It is an unusual scene for a high-end U.S. restaurant. When a customer asks where the ingredients came from, the kitchen manager, Yoshi Okai, 37, from Kyoto, tells them they were shipped from Japan, by air.

     A course meal including a chef's demonstration of lightly grilling sashimi over a charcoal fire costs $55 per person at Qui. A local meat distributor dining at the restaurant says Qui's dishes and hospitality are changing food in Texas for the better.

     Japanese food is touching other parts of the U.S. too. Koji Kanematsu opened Onigilly in San Francisco. The shop sells Japanese-style rice balls, known as onigiri, with fillings such as spicy shrimp and bacon for around $3 each. During lunch time, the shop comes to life with regular customers.

     When Kanematsu, a former employee of a Japanese system development company stationed in the U.S., started selling rice balls from a food stall, he was swamped with complaints about how they differ to sushi. But Kanematsu used fillings to seduce the local palate.

     Onigilly currently has two shops in San Francisco and sells 1,200 to 1,700 rice balls every day. Kanematsu said the food "has started to be accepted due to growing health-consciousness and because it is easy to eat."

     Meanwhile, in New York, at Smorgasburg, a weekend food market in Brooklyn, people queue for two hours to eat ramen burgers, a hamburger patty sandwiched between buns made of ramen noodles. A Japanese-American sells the food which originates from Japan's Fukushima Prefecture.

     There are many ways to think about food. Cooking expert Nathan Myhrvold takes a scientific approach to Japanese food. The former chief technology officer of Microsoft studied at a prestigious culinary school. He became famous after publishing a volume of cookbooks which give detailed analyses of cooking methods and features cross-sectional photos of cooking utensils and ingredients.

     "Umami and dashi are interesting. Asian food, including Japanese, could be the next research theme," said Myhrvold, referring to the soft savory flavors common in the cuisine.

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