The certification program of Japanese Food and Ingredient Supporter Stores Overseas
Interview of Suppoter Stores DARUMA
A leading player in promoting Japanese food in Mexico. "DARUMA taste" using Japanese-made food ingredients
Mexico City / Mexico
Mr. Sugawara, who developed Japanese food culture in Mexico: DARUMA
No Mexican who has lived in Mexico City for a long time is unaware of the Japanese restaurant "DARUMA". This long-standing establishment has a 45-year history that no other Japanese restaurant can claim. The owner is Joji Sugawara. The restaurant currently has five branches in Mexico City. DARUMA is also thought to have originated the Japanese fried food that is now standard in Mexico, such as "torikatsu," and "kushiage de queso," which consists of cheese fried on skewers. Mr. Sugawara opened the first DARUMA Japanese restaurant in the early days of Japanese food culture in 1975. At the time, Japanese food was still largely unknown, and he struggled to get local people to accept it, but through a process of repeated trial and error he attempted to find Japanese food that would suit them. Providing sushi that suited the tastes of Mexicans, he became a leading player in the sushi boom of the 1980s. It is said that, "There is no exaggeration in stating that the style of sushi that Mexicans are familiar with today was created by Mr. Sugawara," and in this way, he created an opportunity for Mexicans to encounter Japanese food. As a person who has made a large contribution to the promotion of Japanese food culture in Mexico, in 2018 he received a Japanese Food Promotion Meritorious Person Award from the Japanese government.
The menu includes various Japanese foods, such as sushi, sashimi, teppanyaki, fried food and noodles. This menu has been refined to suit Mexican tastes. More than 90% of customers are Mexicans. They visit frequently both day and night in order to experience the "DARUMA taste," which has enjoyed popularity and support in the long years since the restaurant was established.
Why this long-established restaurant in Mexico is committed to using Japanese-made food ingredients
The restaurant is committed to using Japanese-made food ingredients, and the reason for this goes back around 45 years. When Mr. Sugawara established the first branch of DARUMA, the import of most Japanese-made food ingredients—not only directly from Japan but also via the USA—was banned. Only food ingredients from Mexico could be used. Amid uncertainty regarding Mexican preferences and the image attached to Japanese food, he spent many days performing a process of trial and error. From around 1985, Japanese-made food ingredients gradually became available in Mexico, and worries about procuring common ingredients—such as Japanese rice and soy sauce—waned. As a result of that experience, Mr. Sugawara is grateful for the current abundant line-up of Japanese-made food ingredients and pays careful attention to their selection.
DARUMA uses various Japanese-made food ingredients, but sushi and tempura made with Japanese "kanikama" (crab sticks) are the most popular dishes. "The basic ingredient of the kanikama used by DARUMA is real crab. The flavor is completely different to that of ordinary kanikama," says Mr. Sugawara. "DARUMA has pursued a search for Japanese food tastes that suit Mexican people. However, since it is offered as Japanese food, we cannot provide cuisine that deviates from genuine Japanese food. For some dishes, the taste of DARUMA’s Japanese food simply cannot be produced using local Mexican ingredients," he explains. Using knowledge and personal connections that derive from living 53 years in Mexico, he concentrates great effort on procuring Japanese-made food ingredients.
Bringing the appeal of sake and shochu to Mexico
Currently, DARUMA is putting effort into promoting and selling sake. "We regularly hold sake tasting events attended by around 60 Mexican people. These events have three objectives. The first is for people to realize that sake is delicious. The second is for people to understand the appeal of drinking sake while eating Japanese food. The third is to connect this to an interest in shochu. Understanding the deliciousness of sake and learning about pairing it with various dishes opens up the possibilities for greater consumption of sake and Japanese food. If people deepen their understanding of sake and become acquainted with its appeal, then we believe they may also come to appreciate shochu. In Mexico, consumption of shochu is much less than that of sake. However, amongst Mexicans who have been to Japan for work or travel, there are many who prefer shochu to sake. With the rapid increase in the number of Japanese restaurants in Mexico and travelers to Japan, Japanese food is becoming more readily accepted by Mexicans living in Mexico City, and from my own direct experience, I know that the market for Japanese food is growing year by year. Japanese-made food ingredients, such as sake and shochu, hold endless possibilities."
Market development through Japanese-made food ingredients
"The challenge for DARUMA is to attract young people. We have long-term established local customers, but there is an urgent need to appeal to the young generation. We believe we have to take on the fresh challenge of targeting young Mexicans—who have some knowledge of Japanese food—as new customers. For example, offering new dishes made with Japanese-made food ingredients. I feel that Wagyu beef also has great appeal. In the past, we stocked and sold Wagyu beef, but stopped because it was too expensive. Currently, you can stock good quality Wagyu beef at a cheaper price than at that time. I feel that the repertoire of obtainable Japanese-made food ingredients has increased, and so the breadth of challenge that can be met has expanded. In addition to the current menu, we would like to offer more authentic Japanese cuisine in order to provide customers with a new sense of values," says Mr. Sugawara.
For DARUMA, which has hitherto provided Mexican-style Japanese food to its long-term customers, a new challenge is about to begin.