The certification program of Japanese Food and Ingredient Supporter Stores Overseas
Interview of Suppoter Stores Isenokuni
Winning the hearts of Thai guests with authentic Japanese tastes using ingredients from Japan and a wide selection of Japanese drinks
Bangkok / Thailand
Bringing to Bangkok culinary expertise honed at traditional Japanese restaurants
The restaurant Isenokuni SakurasakuBekkan is a favorite of Japanese people living in Thailand for its food described as genuine taste of home. In addition to local specialties of Mie and Gifu, two prefectures in central Japan, the menu features a broad range of dishes from rare delicacies to original creations. Run by a fruits and vegetables wholesaler based in Mie, which operates an izakaya drinking establishment locally, the Bangkok restaurant is the first outlet outside Japan under the Sakurasaku brand. It is situated on the street lined with Japanese-owned shops and restaurants and frequented by many Japanese expatriates.
We spoke to the owner Shigehiro Ito, a chef with 30 years’ experience in Japanese cuisine. He started out his culinary career at an established Japanese traditional inn & restaurant, where he trained in Japanese cuisine from the basics for ten years and then moved on to work at high-end golf clubs and hotel restaurants. During these stints, Mr. Ito learned some of the finer points of Chinese and western cuisines through fellow chefs and even prepared ramen noodles for guests. His extensive experience gained while moving from kitchen to kitchen is reflected in the menu representing his restaurant: Mapo tofu fusing Szechwan spiciness with Japanese taste and Yokkaichi specialty big Tonteki pork steak, cooked in a generous amount of lard, are just a couple of examples. And especially popular among international guests, not to mention Japanese customers, is Wagyu sukiyaki.
Brand name Wagyu beef enjoying great popularity
“We’re not a luxury restaurant. We try to recreate authentic Japanese taste as closely as possible, but within the given price range,” comments Mr. Ito. “We aim to offer food and services that match local tastes and needs, without being too extravagant. So our menu includes everything from casual izakaya-style items to sumptuous Sukiyaki, and we cater to all sorts of occasions from casual dining to formal entertaining. That said, I don’t want to serve anything that’s not up to my standards, so our dishes aren’t adapted to Thai taste. We’re all about authentic Japanese taste, no compromises. And we’ll stick to this principle so that restaurants like ours will one day be widely appreciated globally,” says Mr. Ito, who is especially proud of his Yogan yaki (hot stone roasting) and Wagyu tataki, two dishes that bring out the best flavors in Wagyu beef. He uses Okayama’s prized Chiyagyu beef for these items. Thai people show a strong interest in Wagyu beef, according to Mr. Ito, and tend to ask which brand of meat they are served.
Another dish the chef is excited about is Oden, a classic Japanese delight, the ingredients of which are ordered from Japan, not just the paste items but daikon radish as well. “Radish grown in Thailand is hard and takes forever to cook, which can’t be helped because the soil is different here. Japanese-grown radish is perfect for Oden, they absorb the dashi broth well and get soft enough to slide a chopstick into. In future, I’d like to add some more varieties of Japanese vegetables to our offerings, like tomatoes with good sweet flavor and Chinese cabbages.”
Japanese food items are now easier to get
Mr. Ito in fact worked for a Japanese restaurant in Bangkok some 12 years ago. Back then, there were few suppliers of Japanese food ingredients, and the volume and variety of goods available at Japanese-owned supermarkets in those days cannot compare to what they are today. “I would put my ingenuity to work and put together Japanese dishes using whatever was available in Thailand,” Mr. Ito recalls. “It was impossible to meet guest requests as fully as I would have liked, and that was frustrating. Now, I buy more than 90 percent of seafood from Japan, and I generally get to pick and choose. I focus on seasonal items, rare foodstuff, and local specialties, such as Hoba miso, a specialty of my native Gifu, and red turnips from Hidatakayama, because our guests really enjoy them, for one thing, and for another, I want to make sure we offer genuine tasting foods, even if they cut into profits.
A broad selection of more than 150 brands of Japanese alcoholic beverages
In the evenings, true sake enthusiasts gather at Sakurasaku, which carries a broad range of alcoholic beverages including 60 brands of shochu, 15 brands of liquor, and well over 80 brands of sake. “Customers’ sake preferences tend to be more specific than their preferences for shochu, so we want to serve something that tastes as similar as possible to the label they ask for. It would be nice to be able to offer sake produced in their native region too,” remarks Mr. Ito. The restaurant stores the bottles in a dedicated refrigerator and monitors the temperature closely, making sure that the rich aroma of the drinks will not be affected. For sake beginners and international guests, Sakurasaku offers a sake-tasting menu that allows them to choose any three tastes from the selection.
“When it comes to sake, freshness is everything. Once the bottle is opened, flavor is quickly lost. So sometimes we offer unconsumed sake for sampling, and we actually have a Thai customer who fell in love with it after trying the sample. He told me, ‘I wasn’t very keen on sake before, but this one is delicious,’ and he really made my day.” Mr. Ito adds, “Sake is Japan’s most renowned beverage, and I really want our local customers to get acquainted with it. If they try different kinds, I’m sure everyone will find their favorite.” Describing his efforts to widely promote Japanese food and drinks in Thailand, Mr. Ito smiles mischievously, “It’s like missionary work.