Food can offer a window into a culture, a dish can reflect a community’s character, and a menu can reveal the journey of the chef who curated it. But the smorgasbord of influences behind a city’s food scene can be as complex as the multicultural web that connects it.
Today, Bangkok has one of the world’s most exciting and diverse food scenes as expats from every continent have settled in the capital, often blurring the boundaries between cultural cuisines.
One of the most important foreign influences has been the community that hails from the Land of the Rising Sun. In 2019, Japanese businesses contributed more than one-third of the $6.13 billion in foreign investment to Thailand. So, it is understandable to discover that there are more than 3,000 Japanese restaurants now operating in the country.
Japanese restaurant operators in Thailand have continued to expand despite the pandemic. According to the latest market survey by the Japan External Trade Organisation (Jetro), Thailand is the largest Japanese restaurant business in Asean. Of the total 4,094 Japanese restaurants in Thailand, 2,105 restaurants are in Bangkok, and 1,989 are in provincial areas, demonstrating the food sector's significant role in the two nations’ economic relationship.
The astronomical growth in popularity over the past few decades has been influenced by two primary factors: high-priced Japanese dishes becoming more affordable for the average Thai family and the increasing connections between the two societies.
The growing influence of a community
In the 1980s, Japanese businesses began relocating their manufacturing operations to Thailand to take advantage of the cheap labour. The initial wave of migration was mostly male, comprising businessmen and employees of big names like Toyota, Honda, and Canon. As their families joined them, the community retained much of its cultural identity, congregating in the Sukhumvit area between Asoke and Ekkamai.
Retaining strong cultural roots, this close-knit group attracted Mikio Numadate, founder of Daco, a magazine that caters to the Japanese expat community. Numadate believes the lower cost of living and famous Thai weather appealed to many in his community. Thailand, he feels, may also be viewed as an escape from Japan’s more conservative social codes.
When his wife, Kumi Yuki, started her own restaurant some 20 years ago, she aimed to provide something a bit different. “Ask many Japanese people back then,” says Yuki. “And they missed the ramens and curries from back home. Only very traditional sushi and tempura restaurants existed.”
Initially, the Japanese struggled with the intense Thai flavours, of coriander in particular, hence the high volume of restaurants catering to their tastes in their neighbourhoods.
Yuki believes that much of Thailand’s perception of Japanese cuisine was based on the American interpretation of sushi bento boxes and teppanyaki chefs juggling knives.
But as socio-economic ties strengthened, the tastes of the younger generations evolved, particularly as they could afford international travel in search of new experiences.
As Japanese visitors have grown accustomed to Thai food, they have become more receptive to variety back home. Now there are even a few restaurants in Tokyo that specialise in coriander-based dishes, including one that serves a hot pot made with an adventurous 1kg of coriander.
Japan’s relaxed visa requirements for Thai nationals in 2013 opened the floodgates in the other direction. According to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, more than 1.32 million Thais visited in 2019. They go on foodie holidays, in search of authentic cuisine and the perfect Instagram picture. They have become more knowledgeable, demanding authentic Japanese flavours when they return to Thailand.
According to the Agriculture and Food Department at the Japan External Trade Organisation in Bangkok, Thailand is the largest Asean market for Japanese food. Several chains have capitalised on this boom, such as Fuji, Zen, Yoshinoya, Gyu-Kaku, and Kourakuen.
Indeed, opening a Japanese restaurant in Bangkok had been a cash cow. Despite heavy market saturation, hundreds of new restaurants opened year after year, and there were always enough Thais and tourists to feed on that supply.
That was until COVID-19 hit.
The knowledgeable Thai diner demands
Someone who appreciates the convenience and lower cost of living in Bangkok is Chef Masato Shimizu. Originally from rural Japan, he cut his teeth as a sushi chef in Tokyo before moving to New York, where he became one of the youngest chefs to earn his restaurant a MICHELIN Star in New York, at age 29.
He opened his restaurant, Sushi Masato, five years ago after moving to Bangkok with his Thai-Japanese wife to start a family. Located in an unassuming alley off Sukhumvit, Masato serves up a traditional Omakase dining experience.
Chef Masato’s eye for detail, from the discreet entrance and lighting designs to the selective improvisation of dishes for his customers, achieved MICHELIN Star status for his restaurant in MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2021 edition - only the second Japanese restaurant to do so.
“Before COVID,” he explains. “I had more international diners, some who followed me from New York, Hong Kong, and Singapore. But since COVID began, I rely on local customers... probably 70% are Thai.”
Many of his regular diners are serious about their food, and they often come with grand expectations. “People know each other. It’s a small, tight-knit community.”
Back in New York, 20% of his ingredients were locally sourced, and 80% shipped in from Japan. However, that did not work in Thailand. He received some unfavourable comments about using Thai shrimp and crab and has stuck to 100% Japanese imports ever since.
A devout traditionalist
Chef Shigeru Hagiwara, who leads Yamazato, the Okura Prestige's MICHELIN Plate (MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2021) Japanese restaurant, is a staunch traditionalist in menu design.
Much of his success can be attributed to his approach to haute cuisine, which requires an obsessive attention to detail to visual presentation. His menu selection is guided by Japan’s four seasons, which means that he presents diners with the exact colours, textures, and flavours as if they were dining in Tokyo.
While he won’t compromise on Japanese ingredients, he does make some minor adjustments for locals. “Thai people prefer a sweeter taste,” he says. “So we adjust the dishes to be sweeter than traditional Japanese.” But rather than sugar, he adds sweetness with mirin or honey.
Hagiwara believes the Japanese minimalist use of seasonal ingredients has influenced Thai cuisine, so new desserts have emerged that accentuate the natural flavours of fruits like mangosteen.
Adapting to the new “ab”-normal
Since COVID first struck, virtually every economy has contracted. Termed the “new normal”, it comes with regulations that are more than an inconvenience to most businesses that have been forced to find creative ways to adapt and survive.
As the pandemic spiralled out of control in the West, many Bangkokians returned to their offices as early as May 2020. But tight controls on hospitality and the ban on foreign tourists limited services.
Chef Hagiwara found that a squeeze on freight traffic affected prices and made it more difficult to obtain certain quality products.
Masato, however, managed to avoid the worst effects of the crisis. He has a dedicated shipping container that delivers four or five times a week. Meanwhile, the diminutive size of his restaurant has made it easier for him to meet the government’s COVID regulations for hospitality.
Even during Bangkok’s strictest lockdown period, when there was an 11pm curfew, he continued to serve 20 guests, albeit for one sitting per evening.
As the Okura Prestige shut its doors during lockdown, Chef Hagiwara began to prepare something special in anticipation of eased restrictions.
When the hotel reopened with a skeleton service at the start of June, Bangkokians could order a special lunchbox. Hagiwara had found a way to delight his fans again, with favourites like eel, Japanese egg rolls, deep-fried oysters, ebiten maki, or premium Japanese sirloin beautifully arranged in a bento box.
Both restaurants, Yamazato and Sushi Masato, now offer delivery services in addition to traditional in-restaurant dining. These changes reflect the wider trends across the industry as many grocery stores, hotels, and restaurants developed their online and food delivery options.
What’s next for the Japanese food scene in Bangkok?
Chef Hagiwara says that the widespread availability of wasabi and teriyaki have influenced Thai tastes and feels teppanyaki will grow in popularity and influence in 2021.
This is not the show-and-throw spectacle for tourists, but rather an emphasis on luxury and refined Japanese aesthetics, as championed by the Okura Tokyo. “By using simple seasonings, the natural flavours of the wagyu, seafood, and vegetables shine through,” he says.
Chef Masato diversified his offerings by opening a small bar and restaurant on the third floor of his shophouse. Serving cocktails, whisky, and other Japanese classics, the bar attracts a more youthful crowd. The new a la carte menu, meanwhile, allows the team to be more creative, now including some Thai ingredients.
“Developments in local agriculture mean the quality of produce is improving,” he says. “And the quality of Thai beef has really improved too.
However, the chef isn’t quite ready to use Thai beef in his wagyu sandwich. Thai livestock doesn’t yet produce a high enough fat content in comparison with their Japanese cattle cousins.