Japanese Food in Ireland

Noel McMeel’s Pan Seared Fillet of Irish Hake, Roast Cauliflower Purée, Broad Beans, Bacon Lardons & Vanilla Foam

Dee Laffan speaks to the acclaimed Cork chef Takashi Miyazaki about Ireland’s growing love affair with Japanese food - and the challenges of starting a Japanese restaurant here.

There is no doubt that our plates and palates are often swayed by trending foods and fads - cronuts, pulled pork and bubble tea, anyone? However, the rise in the popularity of Japanese and Korean food in the past few years in Ireland is undeniable.

Restaurants have opened up island-wide as our tastebuds cry out for ramen, sashimi and kimchi, and home food deliveries of sushi (the new hangover food du jour) are in high demand.

We were slow to catch this train, however, with other countries having a long-established relationship with these cuisines and cultures - but, while we might have been a little slow to this table, perhaps the reasons for our growing grá is that we have recognised the common roots with Irish food that have been here all along.

Takashi Miyazaki is a Japanese chef and restaurateur based in Cork. His takeaway restaurant, Miyazaki, opened two years ago and is renowned as one of best in the country for serving authentic Japanese food, winning the Best World Cuisine in Munster and Best Chef in Cork accolades recently at the regional RAI Restaurant Awards.

Modest as he tries to be, there is no denying this man’s talents in the kitchen, his masterful use of Irish ingredients in Japanese dishes and a fine tuning for delicate flavour combinations - not to mention his creative flare for presentation, each dish an esoteric work of art.

But, much as his food is well received now, it has been a big learning curve for Irish palates to appreciate it. For Takashi, who moved to Ireland eight years ago, opening a restaurant here was a dream that for a long time he wasn’t sure would become a reality.

“When I came here it was really hard to get Japanese ingredients, they weren’t available in the markets. Now there are some available in Cork in The English Market and in Dublin in the Asia Market on Drury Street,” explained Takashi. “Because they were hard to find and so expensive back then, it was a risk to try and open a restaurant. We couldn’t put the price really high for the customer and, as we needed to cover our costs, I couldn’t open a restaurant. Now it is definitely easier, although it was very hard for me to set up a business here and I think it is still hard for Japanese people. It took me a few years to set up, I’ve been in Ireland for the past eight years and only able to achieve it now. It’s definitely why there aren’t more authentic Japanese restaurants here.”

Cuttlefish, mooli, dashi

“The last few years I’ve seen lots of Japanese takeaways and Korean restaurants opening,” he continued. “The Japanese restaurants that have opened are copying a style of Japanese cuisine and you also have some fusion-style restaurants, which I don’t mind, but if either type are saying they are authentic, they’re not.”

Washoku, the name used to describe all types of Japanese dishes, was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2014. Washoku became the 22nd Japanese asset to be listed on the list, which also includes kabuki, noh and bunraku.

At the time, it was hoped that the accolade would help preserve Washoku as traditional dietary habits had started to die out in parts of the country. It also helped to export Japanese products overseas, which led to the rising ‘trend’ of the cuisine globally.

“In Europe, the fermentation part of Japanese cuisine is so popular, in the same way as we have seen here the past couple of years. As people are thinking more about healthy eating at the moment, it was almost a natural progression to look to Japanese food,” commented Takashi.

“Sushi is the most popular form of our cuisine here, of course, but it’s not just that, there is so much more! There are so many types of Japanese food. It’s a treasure box. I want people to enjoy the real flavours. Japan is a small country, but with so many regions and each has its own, different flavours.”

“The funny thing is there are so many similarities between Irish and Japanese food, especially ingredients like seafood. I am really happy with the ingredients I use in delivering an authentic taste. I forage for seaweed locally and often use that for dishes on the daily specials menu. Irish pork is great for Japanese cooking, especially pork belly, and beef as well. I always use local meats and love the flavours in my dishes, they marry together perfectly. Another ingredient is beetroot, which is really good in Japanese cooking. We normally fry it with sesame oil – it’s called Kinpira. It is really amazing. In Japan, it is really hard to get beetroot, so it’s great to be able to get it here. It has a really earthy flavour that works so well with Japanese ingredients.”

Cuttlefish, mooli, dashi

“Other similarities I’ve seen here are in the cuisine of chefs like JP McMahon. He is an example of a chef who is doing something similar in his food as uses similar techniques to Japanese cuisine and lots of seaweed and fermentation, although I know that he doesn’t like to compare his cooking to it. And I agree because, you see, the basis of cooking, whether it’s French, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, they are all the same – heat on the pan, frying, steaming, it’s the same. It just depends on what region you are from and what ingredients you use for your cooking. In some ways Irish cuisine’s roots are similar to Japanese for this reason, but a localised version.”

In order for the future of Japanese food in Ireland to develop to a healthier mindset - put down the California rolls for a minute here folks - we must first acknowledge our own food heritage and roots with ingredients such as seaweed and other sea greens.

“The culture has to grow. This is my challenge, to promote Japanese food more. With every menu I try to do more specials and ones that Irish people won’t know. Once they trust my taste they’ll try it, if they like it then they’ll try another thing, and another. At first people wouldn’t try the specials, but I asked for their trust in my taste and after two years now people are asking me “what’s your special?” They are looking for something new and they have confidence to try a new dish that I cook. That means it is growing up now, but we have a long way to go.”

Takashi’s recommendations for restaurants using Japanese techniques and ingredients: Aniar, Galway; Amuse, Dublin 2; Chapter One, Dublin 1; Etto, Dublin 2; Pilgrim, Rosscarbery, Co Cork.

IMAGES by Clare Keogh: Takashi Miyazaki; Cuttlefish, mooli, dashi; Ballyhoura eryngii and chestnuts okowa.


Dee Laffan

Dee Laffan is a freelance food writer and editor. Formerly editor of Easy Food magazine, she has written for the Irish Independent and Sunday Independent. She is a proud supporter of Irish producers and their products, and takes part in judging for food competitions including Blas na hÉireann and the Great Taste Awards. She is a member of the Irish Food Writers' Guild and secretary for Slow Food Dublin. Twitter @deelaffan

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