More diverse menus finding fans around the world
JUN SUZUKI, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO -- Japanese restaurants are spreading fast around the world with more varied menus than in the past, when the selection was mostly limited to familiar dishes such as sushi. The number of Japanese restaurants worldwide has increased 3.7 times from about 24,000 in 2006 to 89,000 in 2015, according to estimates by Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
At one Japanese restaurant at central London's Piccadilly Circus district, men and women of different nationalities enjoy Japanese wagyu beef served as sashimi and sushi, along with Japanese sake. The place opened in February last year as the first Japanese restaurant in the U.K. specializing in Kobe beef, a brand of premium quality wagyu. Victoria, a 38-year-old woman who visited the restaurant with her partner, said, "The marble is splendid and it melts in your mouth."
Wagyu has been gaining popularity as a delicacy mainly among the wealthy, thanks to the lifting of the ban on beef imports from Japan to the European Union in June 2014. The meat can be found at high-end supermarkets.
But not all meat labelled "wagyu" in Europe comes from Japan. Some, though still of the Japanese breed, is produced in Australia. As the original producer of wagyu, Japan is faced with the challenge of raising awareness of the product.
In the burgeoning Southeast Asian market, casual, everyday Japanese cuisine is attracting attention. In Singapore, the number of Japanese restaurants grew about 24% to 1,105 as of the end of June 2015 compared to two and a half years before. Many are full-scale restaurants operated by Japanese companies rather than "Japanesque" diners run by locals that were often seen across the country. These days such small restaurants can only be found among shabby street stands. Newly opened restaurants offer not only standard menus like sushi and ramen noodles but a variety of other specialties including fugu, "okonomiyaki" (Japanese pancake), and "jingisukan" (grilled mutton or lamb).
In Jakarta, people have been flocking to udon noodle restaurants in recent years. In August last year, Japanese udon restaurant chain Tamoya opened its first Indonesian outlet with 150 seats in a shopping mall in the north of the city. Tamoya offers "sanuki udon," a local specialty from the company's headquarters in Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture.
In the past, udon, a type of thick wheat noodle, was not expected to appeal to Indonesians, as the flavor was considered to be too light for people fond of eating spicy foods. But Toridoll, another Japanese company, defied expectations with tempura (battered, deep-fried vegetables and other ingredients) toppings, which captured the hearts of the fried food-loving Indonesians. Sporting a sign reading "Udon & Tempura," Toridoll's Marugame Seimen restaurant offers 10 or so kinds of large tempura, along with raw peppers, a crucial addition there.
Companies smell a market
Major Japanese food companies are entering the Philippines, counting on the popularity of "tonkatsu" (pork cutlet). Tonkatsu has been a hit there thanks to the booming middle class and the local food culture that favors pork and rice. In October last year, Tonkatsu Maisen opened an outlet in a large commercial complex in Manila, one of three franchise outlets run by a local company. Sales have been about 30% above initial estimates and two more outlets are set to open this year. "As the economy has been growing faster than expected, boosting the middle class, people accept relatively high prices of around 400 pesos ($8.52)," said Izutsu Maisen, the parent company.
Japanese restaurant operators are looking beyond to find new frontiers. In Yangon, the commercial capital of Myanmar, a number of Japanese restaurants targeting expatriates have opened since 2013. In the last three years, the number of Japanese restaurants in the city almost quintupled to around 150, growing at a faster pace than the number of member companies at the Japanese chamber of commerce in Myanmar. Nevertheless, membership tripled in the two and a half years to December 2015 to some 280. The city already has a rich variety of Japanese foods available, which some say is comparable to Tokyo, including "tonkotsu" (pork bone broth-based) ramen noodles, gyoza Chinese dumplings, and others offered by Thai companies.