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Japanese cuisine on a roll in Indonesia

Consumer interest is growing but some creations are more 'mashup' than fusion

Lobster rolls at Indigo, an upper-midrange Japanese restaurant in the Balinese resort village of Canggu. (Ian Neubauer)

JAKARTA -- The internationalization of Japanese "fusion" cuisine can be traced to the 1970s, when Vancouver chef Hidekazu Tojo came up with the idea of rolling sushi inside out, creating the globally popular phenomenon known as California rolls.

In the last few decades, Japanese food has traveled and fused with the cuisines of France, China and scores of other countries. At every level, from simple cafes to Michelin-starred restaurants, key Japanese ingredients such as nori and katsuobushi (bonito flakes) have found their way into Western dishes.

In Southeast Asia, where local cuisines are largely rice- or noodle-based, with added ingredients such as soy sauce, Japanese cuisine has spawned unique and creative local versions, with varying degrees of success.

However, according to Kevindra Prianto Soemantri, narrator of the Indonesian episode of the popular Netflix series "Street Food" and one of the country's top restaurant critics, there are few places where Japanese cuisine is as popular and has taken so many different forms as Indonesia, an archipelagic nation of about 270 million people.

"Japanese is our second favorite cuisine after Indonesian-Chinese food. There's no record of how many Japanese restaurants we have in Indonesia, but I'm confident the number could reach more than 3,000. That number may seem low for such a densely populated country, but remember we are a developing nation and not every city or island's exposure to foreign cultures and technology is the same."

HokBen is Indonesia's largest Japanese-food chain, with 170 outlets spread across 13 cities on the islands of Java, Bali and Sumatra. (Ian Neubauer)

The Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad, based in Tokyo, also said it does not know how many Japanese eateries there are in Indonesia, but noted the country has the largest market for Japanese cuisine after Thailand among the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Soemantri said the reason Indonesians adore Japanese food "is still a mystery because the two countries' cuisines are both so very different: The former is very simple and the latter is extremely vibrant.

"But they have one thing in common -- something that can't be seen, only tasted: unami," he said, referring to the Japanese word for the savory taste profiles found in edible seaweed, sweet soy sauce and raw fish, as well as galangal, shrimp paste, shallots and other common Indonesian ingredients.

New-style sashimi otoro at Indigo. (Ian Neubauer)

A second and equally important factor highlighted by Soemantri is the proliferation of Japanese venues in Indonesia, which began in the 1960s with the opening of two high-end restaurants in Jakarta -- Yoshiko and Cikini -- the second of which still trades today.

These restaurants were only relevant to the elite, however. "It wasn't until 1985 [that] HokaHoka Bento introduced simple Japanese food to the masses," Soemantri said, referring to a chain that now operates 170 fast-food outlets spread across 13 cities on the islands of Java, Bali and Sumatra.

Now trading as HokBen, the store is the McDonald's of Indonesian Japanese cuisine, with canary-yellow motifs, glazed plastic tables and several poster-size "photo-menus" on the walls that include a la carte dishes such as chicken egg rolls as well as set meals based on rice accompanied by proteins. Spicy beef teriyaki and prawn nuggets sell for $2 or $3.

Staff at a HokBen outlet in Jakarta and a $2 set meal. (Ian Neubauer)

But the food "is not Japanese -- only Indonesian food served in the Japanese style," said an assistant at HokBen Express's Blok M Square outlet in the South Jakarta neighborhood of Melawai, where the "Little Tokyo" area was established in the 1990s for Japanese who arrived during an oil boom.

At Sunset Star, a food strip on Sunset Road, Bali's main thoroughfare, a HokBen outlet also sells Balinese satay sticks, fried rice and "happier healthy options" such as a Tokyo salad bowl. At Yakinikuya Sakai, an all-you-can-eat "Japanese Barbecue" next door, offerings include Korean delicacies such as kimchi nibbles, egg drop soup and salted tongue. "The decor is Japanese but the food is Korean," said a shop assistant.

Indo-Japanese cuisine improves markedly in the middle range of the market, Soemantri says, with venues catering to the country's burgeoning middle class and to Western tourists who demand higher-quality ingredients and fewer fried foods.

Hindu shrines and a sign for Yakinikuya Sakai, a Japanese BBQ restaurant that only sells Korean food on Bali's Sunset Road. (Ian Neubauer)

In the Balinese surfing mecca of Canggu, American expatriates Julian and Jason Zielonka do a roaring trade at TYGR, a hand-rolled sushi restaurant and bar based on a venue in Los Angeles to which the brothers became addicted before relocating to Indonesia. The venue is centered around a large square bar similar to a sushi train restaurant but the decor and service are more Pan-Asian than anything else.

"We never call it Japanese or use any Japanese writing or symbols, because at the end of the day we're a couple of Californian guys selling California rolls and pan-Asian food," Julian said.

Last year the brothers opened a second TYGR outlet in Ubud, a tourist town in Bali popular among yogis, creatives and soul searchers where vegan food is in trend mode.

"It crossed my mind to go 100% vegan in Ubud, but it would not have maximized sales. So instead we expanded our vegan offerings and hired a vegan consultant to make dishes without meat we could really be proud of, because vegan sushi is usually made with boring ingredients like cucumber, avocado and tofu," Julian said.

Top: The interior of TYGR, a restaurant operated by American expatriates Julian and Jason Zielonka in the Balinese tourist town of Ubud. Bottom: Vegan nigiri at TYGR. (Ian Neubauer)

"We have one dish called Over The Rainbow where we blanch tomatoes, peel the skin off, then marinate it to make it look like salmon. We also do a jackfruit katsu curry where we take the jackfruit, turn it into a patty then deep-fry it to make a soy meat-like texture that's served with rice and vegan ramen."

Middle-class Indonesians are fond of sushi and sashimi, too -- a gastronomic love affair that can be traced back to the opening of the country's first branch of Sushi Tei at Plaza Senayan, a shopping mall in central Jakarta, in 1996. The Singaporean-based franchise now has 45 outlets in Indonesia with columned verandas, curved gables, screen grids and sushi bars where customers can order perfectly sliced blue-fin tuna, salmon and other kinds of raw fish in authentic Japanese style with wasabi, soy sauce and pickled ginger on the side.

However, there is a distinctive Indonesian approach at Jakarta's Sushi Tei. Staff do not yell irrashaimasse! ("come on in!") when customers enter, as is the custom in Japan and at Japanese restaurants around the world. Here, you can find fusion dishes that would make Japanese food aficionados cringe, such as maki rolls (sushi rice rolls) with salmon and prawns smothered with melted cheese sauce. "Sometimes we (Japanese) put sweet mayonnaise on salmon nigiri (a type of sushi), but you should never have cheese with fish," said Megumi Kikuchi, a Japanese tourist in Bali.

“I came to Indonesia to improve my experience and skills, but I do not fuse,” says Chef Ariyana of Jakarta's HonZEN. (Ian Neubauer)

Yumiko Kikuchi, a Japanese expatriate who has lived in Bali since 1978, put it in less diplomatic terms. "I understand why they mix everything together -- to make money," she said. "But it tastes terrible. It's not Japanese." The restaurant's devoted patrons clearly disagree.

Kyoto-born chef Morita Shigehiko of Indigo, an upper-midrange Japanese restaurant in Bali with sliding wall-to-ceiling glass doors, bamboo plants in the courtyard and natural wooden furniture, said culinary oddities such as maki rolls with melted cheese had found a market in Indonesia to meet local tastes.

"Authentic Japanese food has very soft, subtle flavors," he said. "But Indonesians prefer strong-tasting foods with lots of spices and sweetness. I add more salt and soy sauces in my dishes to please them. It creates a totally different taste."

The interior of Indigo. (Ian Neubauer)

Shigehiko has also fashioned a range of Japanese-Continental European fusion dishes such as foie gras rolls and what he calls "new-style sashimi" flavored with ingredients such as coriander, cauliflower and lemon peel. He also offers vegan dishes such as sushi with cucumber and purple basil, as well as gluten-free offerings like vegetable tempura with miso mustard and truffle salt.

But top-end venues in Indonesia tend to stick within the confines of authentic Japanese cuisine. HonZEN, at the five-star Ayana Midplaza hotel in Jakarta, is a textbook example.

"I came to Indonesia to improve my experience and skills, but I do not fuse," said chef Ariyana of Yokohama (who goes by a single name). "I keep sambal (Indonesian chili paste) in the kitchen for customers who request it. But the food I make in Indonesia is no different from the food in Japan."

HonZEN sticks to authentic Japanese cuisine. (Ian Neubauer)

Despite its presence at almost every socioeconomic level of the food chain, the overall influence of Japanese cuisine in Indonesia is still in its infancy, noted Soemantri.

"Its impact on the matter of creating new types of cuisines in Indonesia will not be the same as Chinese, Dutch, Indian and Arabic cuisine," he says. "The cultural interaction between those nations with Indonesia took place over very long periods, extensively and at many different regions at the same time. Relatively speaking, Japanese cuisine is still completely new to us."

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