4 food trends coming out of Japan

Traditional sushi is present on every British city high street, but how are the Japanese evolving the dish?

26 June 2019
Shio ramen
image credit: Getty Images

Japanese cuisine is internationally admired for its exactitude and precision. Indeed, cooks employ a philosophy called ‘kaizen’ to continually improve their food, as Elizabeth Haigh previously told Food Spark. Sushi chefs will learn how to prepare one type of fish, and even one particular cut, and perfect that craft for an entire lifetime.

This has led to a conservative outlook when it comes to adopting new styles of cooking. In practice, flavours and innovations, especially from the West, rarely take off or disrupt the market.

There are exceptions to every rule, however, and there are a variety of food trends that are shaping and changing the industry right now.

1) Ramen in a clear broth

For the most part, ramen is a cheap and functional food in Japan, unlike in the UK where it is still seen as an unusual gastronomic treat. The classic version features noodles served in a deep, creamy bone marrow broth, but there are some who experiment with the formula.

A scattering of ramen restaurants are serving a clear-brothed ramen, made by skimming the excess fat off from the broth at a lower temperature, before boiling point. The end result is a much lighter, clearer and less rich broth, made typically with chicken and served with meat cuts and local vegetables. More like a Vietnamese pho, the clear broth noodle soup is often saltier and less spicy, but still packs a flavour punch.

Where to find it: The clear ‘shio’ ramen broth is based on a traditional recipe, but these days it’s relatively uncommon on Japan’s streets. However, the style is becoming increasingly trendy once again. Find good examples at the Ramen Shifuku restaurant near Hakata in Western Japan and at Shinka restaurant in Tokyo.

2) Dry-aged sushi

Dry ageing has risen in popularity in both the east and west as a straightforward way to enhance texture and flavour. Part of the rise of so-called ‘sea-cuterie,’ dry-ageing fridges also add a little theatricality to restaurant and supermarket settings for traders looking to increase their visual displays.

Dry ageing fish is nothing new, but the practice hasn’t aligned with traditional sushi masters for obvious reasons. Recently, however, it’s become popular with experimental chefs in Tokyo.

The move is practical as well as novel: dry-aged fish lasts longer, so enjoys an increased shelf life, while also creating a more complex flavour profile, allowing more time for the fish to develop an unami richness. Health-wise, dry-aged fish is also easier to digest and usually richer in nutrients.

Where to find it: Dry-aged sushi is popular with younger chefs working on Tokyo’s pop-up scene, as well as in a select few sushi restaurants. Many locals won’t have even heard of dry-aged sushi yet, but Michelin-starred Sushi Kimura is a must-try, while the Japanese chain of sushi restaurants known as Uogashi Nihonichi also champion dry ageing.

3) Sushi with embellishments 

Sushi in Japan is conventionally served fuss-free; a plain piece of fish, typically salmon or tuna, atop a bed of rice. At more traditional sushi restaurants, it is seen as disrespectful to even add more than one pea-sized amount of wasabi to the fish, in case it ruins the flavour of the fish. The beauty is in the simplicity.

This may be changing, though, as more of the casual street-level sushi bars in Tokyo are serving their wares with decorative embellishments. Vinaigrettes are increasingly common, both for appearance’s sake and to offset the fatty fish with something sharper and more acidic.

Where to find it: High street conveyor belt sushi chains in particular have begun breaking from the traditional serve of just fish and rice. Ganso Zushi outlets top their fish with pickles, viniagrettes and diced vegetables to add flavour and texture, as well as to heighten appearance.

4) Vegan and veggie rolls

A handful of Japanese cooks are catching onto the vegan and veggie trend. We mean literally a handful, but with the Olympics in 2020, it is predicted that many more vegan and veggie sushi variants will be introduced to cater for an international crowd.

In terms of the locals, there is resistance from the traditional sushi masters, who say sushi can only be made with fresh fish. On the other hand, modern sushi craftspeople are adopting new styles. Fruit and vegetables are being used, especially by pop-ups at sports events and food markets in the city.

Where to find it: A vegan duo going by the name of Green Monday are working tirelessly to introduce vegan sushi to Tokyo. They sell their rolls, made of colourful produce, at markets and have also begun a delivery service. Though they say no one else is really producing vegan sushi on a commercial scale, a small number of committed vegans in Tokyo are helping to introduce the concept to a wider audience.

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