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Tokyo Dreaming

While sushi remains the perennial crowd-pleaser, South Africa’s Japanese dining scene has evolved substantially in the last few years, with revolutionary omakase menus and elevated ramen bowls demonstrating why washoku has conquered the world.
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Japan is where, in culinary terms, I woke up,’ says stalwart Cape Town chef Peter Tempelhoff. ‘Strolling the streets of western Tokyo at night, grazing my way through Yotsuya during my first trip there in 2008, was mind-altering. There were countless yakitori bars, sushiya and ramenya all heaving with locals – all these thousands of little restaurants, and it was difficult to find a bad place to eat.’

Tempelhoff says he became immediately infatuated with ‘the Japanese inclination to do everything better than the rest of the world’. That culture of what the Japanese call ‘ikigai’ – the pursuit of one’s life purpose – struck him hard, particularly as it relates to cuisine, or washoku.

There is a Japanese proverb that means ‘many talent is no talent’, a warning against being a jack-of-all-trades. In Japan, there is a kind of moral imperative to master a specific craft. If you’re a sushi chef, you aim for perfect sushi. It’s why many Japanese restaurants will ardently focus on a specific dish, why a particular style of cooking can become the focus of culinary obsession.

Tempelhoff says he also quickly became obsessed. On multiple trips to Japan, while discovering ‘so many killer dining spots’, he began to understand what made Japanese food unique.

Along with fellow chef Ashley Moss, he brought what he learnt home and corralled his washoku obsessions into Fyn, a visionary restaurant with a multicourse kaiseki menu that demands and deserves a diner’s full attention. Despite the rigorous attention to detail, it’s straightforward enough: fresh, seasonal produce given a Japanese treatment without over-complication. Fyn’s culinary influences are international with a nod to local ingredients, but the creations have been true originals: truffle chawanmushi (savoury custard) with heirloom tomatoes and dashi; hazelnut-crusted Outeniqua springbok with salt-baked celeriac, apples and Cape mountain sage; gamefish and nylon shrimp sashimi with grass seed ‘caviar’, ponzu jelly and soutslaai.

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More recently, Tempelhoff and Moss spent time slurping and feasting their way through a mindblowing array of ramen restaurants, pushcart vendors and hole-in-the-walls across Tokyo and Osaka, expanding their ramen knowledge on up to a dozen-and-a-half different noodle bowls a day.

For a dish that, until just a few years ago, was a fast, cheap, proletariat street food and relatively under the radar outside of Japan, ramen has captured the global imagination. It has become the focus of artisanal intrigue, and spawned waves of devoted chefs and dedicated noodle shops aiming to reproduce that distinctively addictive ‘something’ that this deceptively simple dish offers.

The duo returned from their ramen research having consumed enough bowls of broth-steeped noodles to understand ramen’s complex assemblage of flavours constructed from five components: noodles (made from wheat and alkaline salts, or kansui), broth, the tare (pronounced tah-reh), the richness added via aroma oil, and a wide variety of toppings such as pork chashu or ajitama egg.

There is something profound about ramen. Done properly, it is sufficiently layered to make its creation one of those objects of culinary obsession. The world’s most expensive ramen is the Five-Taste Blend Imperial Noodles dish at Tokyo’s Fujimaki
Gekijyo. The spicy version features more than 20 ingredients. The price? Over US$100.

With an eye on revolutionising South Africa’s ramen scene, Tempelhoff and Moss launched Ramenhead, where their aim is
to elevate noodles beyond your typical street-food experience.

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‘For me it’s all about the umami,’ Tempelhoff says. ‘The more umami the better. I love layering it, and try to get it into each item in every bowl. The noodles have umami from fermentation, the soup gets it from the bone and collagen breakdown, the tare has it from the shoyu (soy sauce), katsuobushi (dried fish), konbu (kelp) and other ingredients like miso (fermented soybean paste).’

At Ramenhead, there’s also heaps of umami from the flavouring oil, and the egg that’s added is marinated in an umami-rich tare. ‘Our mushroom garnish has loads of it, the nori and onion garnish are umami bombs, and the soffritto in the soup is another layer… just in case there isn’t enough umami already!’

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The result is that satisfyingly salty richness that seems to tell the brain that what’s in the mouth is nutrient dense, providing that comfort food dimension, the special something that makes it feel like a warm embrace.

But Tempelhoff isn’t done with his quest to elevate Cape Town’s understanding of Japanese food done properly. His latest project is Sushiya, which opened in late-2023 at the V&A Waterfront’s Time Out Market. It’s a chance to apply himself to the task of introducing South Africans to next-level sushi, which he’s done by partnering with Shin Takagi, the chef behind Zeniya, a two-Michelin-star kaiseki restaurant in Kanazawa.

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‘South Africans love sushi,’ Tempelhoff says, ‘and an absurd number of places profess to make it.’ Problem is, there’s so much cheap, bad sushi. ‘We’ve become accustomed to sushi lathered in mayo and imported farmed Norwegian salmon and frozen fish that’s been deep-fried to hide the freezer taste.’

By contrast, Sushiya showcases authentic Edo-style sushi. ‘We’ve spared no expense to source the finest ingredients,’
Tempelhoff says. ‘Our rice is from Ishikawa, where Takagi lives, our soya is double-fermented and handcrafted by 15th-generation artisans, our nori is the best you can find in Japan. That’s the difference.’

Another inner city Cape Town spot offering a refined take on washoku is Momiji, just upstairs from the casual Tokyo-themed Tjing Tjing Torii restaurant where you can tuck into a variety of traditional Japanese dishes in a playful, neon-hued space inspired by yokocho (street-food alleys). Momiji is more serious, more refined, and done in shades of maple wood (momiji means ‘maple’ or ‘autumn colours’), its unhurried, zen atmosphere a stark contrast to the playful vibe downstairs.

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Steeped in the Japanese concept of shun, which means working with seasonal ingredients, Momiji’s menu is crafted by head chefs Adri Morel and Nicola Aucamp. Like Tempelhoff, they’re both passionate about all things Japanese, something they strive to showcase through dishes created for a multi-course omakase (chef’s choice) menu that’s available only on Saturday evenings.

‘We’re also obsessed with another cornerstone of Japanese food culture known as mottainai,’ says Aucamp. ‘It’s the principle of “no waste”, respecting an ingredient by using it to its fullest potential. It means finding creative ways to use ingredients that might otherwise be tossed.’

It’s why they developed a dish that pairs a beautiful cut of wagyu beef with slow-cooked wagyu tongue. It’s also led to the creation of onigiri chazuke, pickled mussel, sango and buttery trout and trout roe, that’s served with cucumber, mange tout and wakame.

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It draws on an unpretentious traditional Japanese dish made with leftovers by pouring green tea or dashi broth over rice. For Aucamp’s version, fish bones are used to make the broth while fish skins add crispness – both ingredients that would otherwise have been thrown away.

‘We use only what’s local, in season, and at its peak of flavour and freshness,’ says Morel. ‘We opt for sustainable, freshly-caught fish rather than importing salmon or eel. Importing a Japanese fish and serving it in Cape Town isn’t our style. And while we use traditional ingredients like shiso, we either source
it locally or use South African equivalents.

A localising dimension means their sushi plate might feature Cape-grown trout and ponzu, or you might be served springbok nigiri.

Such integration of local ingredients into traditional Japanese modes of preparation also serves Virgil Kahn, head chef at Hōseki, the sophisticated new Japanese restaurant at Delaire Graff on the Helshoogte Pass.

It’s a rather auspicious setting to try combinations such as Cape wagyu, teriyaki, and truffle and mushroom ragout. Or baby chicken with sake and mirin, shichimi and scallions. Or ume-glazed duck breast with sancho furikake and spinach.

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Exotic though they sound, these are not complicated flavour combinations, Kahn says, but dishes that highlight the produce-driven nature of Japanese cuisine – ‘letting the ingredients do the talking’. They serve the idea that, with food, simplicity can be an art form.

‘As chefs, we often get caught up in the complications of recipes or gastronomic flair, and the basics of flavour and texture are lost,’ he says. ‘At Hōseki, our focus is on the ingredients and how they’re expressed on the plate. Our vision is to create a luxurious estate-to-plate Japanese dining experience through an izakaya approach and by sourcing locally – including produce from our estate’s greenhouse and vegetable garden.’

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The menu features a balance of dishes, hot and cold, traditional and experimental, with extensive options, from sushi to tempura, robata to kushiyaki. The latter are grilled skewers of salmon, Cape wagyu, shiitake mushrooms or scallops, with ikura (red salmon roe) and yuzu koshō butter.

Kahn reckons the wagyu kushiyaki – served with truffle rice – is a stand-out, as is the Den miso black cod as well as the home-grown Delaire goma (traditionally, a vegetable side dish) served with crispy shiitake and sesame.

Given the extent of what’s on offer, though, the simplest choice might be Khan’s omakase menu. Directly translated it means ‘I leave it up to you’. At the culmination of your culinary journey, you can thank Khan and his team by saying, ‘gochiso-sama’. It means ‘I have feasted’, and it will be true.

by Keith Bain

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