Sitting down to smart Japanese street eats can offer a wave of inspiration in the design of your own dishes. Mixing in a bit of Japanese technique, style and flavour into your menu can add a fresh approach, especially to bar food.
While Japanese food has started to include European techniques, ingredients and execution only relatively recently, keeping it real is what makes Japanese food continue to be a go-to for interesting ideas. And the inspiration can come from multiple levels.
It could be top-notch fresh ingredients, either cooked or raw (karaage, tempura, sashimi), a combination of textures (crunchy, soft, slippery), a contrast in flavours (savoury, salty, umami, vinegary), temperature (hot/cold), a bit of punch (wasabi, yuzu, dried chilli), plus that consistent and delicate lightness that exists, even in fried foods.
Small dices of fish or other meats, such as pork belly or chicken thigh, long strips of char-grilled skewers, fine minces for croquettes or chicken meatballs, and the addition of raw shredded vegetables all work in this Japanese-inspired space.
The salt-sugar-umami stars align when you combine light soy sauce, mirin and sake for a quick marinade, whether you present it as Japanese or not. Or get saucy by testing combinations of mirin, ponzu, yuzu, sake and rice vinegar for marinades, dips and “yaki” glazes which covers grilling, roasting and pan cooking everything from fish to chicken.
You can also use clever cooking techniques to recreate the similar style of presentation as seen in sticky, caramelised bites off the Robata grill, or exploring the subtlety of steaming which need not be bland if you do it right. And when you do get it right, whichever type of inspiration you use, you will have a whole new dish being handed across the pass and on to hungry patrons.
Start small by introducing some Japanese touches to your starters or sides menu. It could be loaded fries, served with bonito flakes, or Japanese-style potato croquettes with your own inspired wasabi-mayo dipping sauce.
Get some dynamic combinations going that get customers talking – and eating – be it a tricked up bincho-style charcoal grilled chicken skewers, or slippery udon noodles served cold, with a dose of fresh chilli, to suit our hot climate, or it could be a soft bun securing a karaage-style, panko crumbed chicken tenders served with yuzu mayo and avo, served with raw cabbage. It could be diced raw salmon, Japanese style, served on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce in a taco and slathered with sriracha mayo. Or maybe pork belly bites, slow braised then finished off on the grill then served with Japanese mustard, accompanied by those loaded fries.
In Melbourne, at Galah bar in Windsor, they do a noteworthy bar snack of tempura cauliflower. Meanwhile, fellow Melbournian Scott Pickett's Matilda 159 Domain does a salmon roe and smoked bonito cream tartlet.
Ezra Pound has a vegetarian taco with eggplant, zucchini, miso butter and nori salt. At Casula Powerhouse, Bellbird restaurant’s Federico Rekowski, a Venezuela-born classically-trained Chef, offers okonomiyaki-loaded fries with mayo, shallots and bonito flakes.
At Bird’s Nest in Brisbane they offer house-made chicken meatballs with wasabi mayo, melted cheese and shredded cabbage.
In Perth, Goody Two’s is a mash-up of nightclub and bar meets Japanese street eats, with dishes including a snack of bang bang tofu, spicy sesame and angel hair chilli.
In Auckland, Fukuko offers classic Mexican tacos with a Japanese twist, as well as traditional Japanese rice and noodle bowls. Tacos include sticky pulled pork with spring onion, green apple and tomato salsa or fish tempura with wasabi tartar, tomato salsa and spicy sauce.
So there’s no need to stick to the rules, it just depends on how brave you are, and how deep you want to dive into the unknown.