Brits are all over sushi. It’s hard to imagine that it was once considered exotic, now that Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and M&S have all added sushi counters to a number of their stores. Itsu and YO! Sushi outlets seem like they’re on every corner of the capital, while quirky riffs on the traditional roll like the sushi burrito and the crossushi have given people fad for thought.
But there are many other aspects of Japanese cuisine that present possibilities – especially since the cuisine is on the rise. MCA Insight reported last year that Japanese foodservice operators were growing twice as fast as the branded restaurant and contemporary fast-food segment as a whole. In retail, Japanese ready meals are gathering steam, according to Kantar Worldpanel, growing alongside Malaysian and Vietnamese by 27.9%.
In particular, those aspects of the food that are seen as ‘safe’ have plenty of potential. So nothing as wild as uni (sea urchin), but perhaps something as simple as sliced beef.
We’re talking about Japanese barbecue, more properly known as yakiniku.
The grill thrill
Yakiniku literally means ‘grilled meat’ – and that’s exactly what it is. In Japan, people order their selection (most commonly beef) and then cook it themselves at their table.
These pieces of meat are then dipped in a personalised sauce, though for home it’s also possible to buy a ready-made version of the savoury and sweet condiment – Hellmann’s actually released its own version back in April 2016, as part of a modern BBQ range.
Because the meat is cut quite thin, the chewier, less used parts of the cow that boast lots of flavour are popular, such as tongue and short rib, unconsciously tapping into the nose-to-tail movement.
But yakiniku isn’t limited to beef. Alongside a helping of vegetables, it’s not unusual to have seafood and pork on the grill as well.
The concept has been enjoying a global surge, backed by Japanese chains that are expanding outwards. In New York City, Ikinari opened its first standing-only location in February last year (they’ve since added a few chairs and two more branches), hoping to give off a casual air.
A modern spin on the classic yakiniku joint, punters are presented with much chunkier slabs of meat than is typical. These are served pre-cooked on sizzling griddles, avoiding the issue of diners giving themselves food poisoning. The restaurant dubs these big beauties ‘J-Steak,’ charging around $2.80 per ounce for top rib eye and $2 per ounce for sirloin.
The brand ambitiously plans to unleash 20 locations around Manhattan by 2022 – they managed to notch up more than 100 in Japan in just three years.
And people are getting into it, according to Food Spark’s trend spotter Aaron Arizpe, who says Ikinari has already gained a footing with New Yorkers. He expects other yakiniku-inspired eateries will soon follow in its so-far successful footsteps.
In London, Kintan is one of the few spots dedicated to yakiniku, which they offer in a more traditional style. Thinly sliced Kalbi short rib (£6.50) and tiger prawns (£8) are among their more popular items, done DIY style – with handy menu guidelines explaining how long to cook different dishes.
Part of a larger Japanese-owned dining group, Kintan have been cautiously expanding, with the sequel to its first outlet in Holborn in 2014 coming last year to Oxford Circus.
Elsewhere in London, places like Sakagura in Mayfair and Tokyo Sukiyaki-Tei in South Kensington have been consciously promoting their yakiniku options in recent months, as diners warm to the idea of cooking over hot coals.
We’re getting the meat sweats just thinking about, how about you Sparkie?
The wider trends towards consumer curiosity, especially for authentic traditional foods, would certainly permit it to grow rapidly if someone brings it forward and does it well. It is always interesting to look at the US predictions, because we do tend to get a fair few of those trends following on after about a year or two.
If a retailer does bring out a substantial range that is successful, the other retailers will quickly follow suit in order to be competitive. I am certain that I have seen thinly cut meats available at some retailers, likely those near to a larger Asian community. I think expansion in this area will be slow and highly based on whether the product launches are successful.
Restaurant trends are less predictable, but in much the same way, the bigger brands out there will take notice and follow what is successful elsewhere, using their broader reach to flood the market. All of these foods have potential, particularly as Michelin seem to favour the super specialist restaurants in Asia. I predict a growth in these super specialists which could make things very interesting and open up a new way of dining in this country, which I think will drive some hype when the first one comes to pass.