KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 20 -- Tonight we are praying that liver sashimi is on the menu, along with our usual grill-to-order chicken wing yakitori. Another evening might find us slurping udon noodles or trying our hand at barbecuing tender strips of ox tongue over hot charcoals.
To experience these authentic izakaya delights, we need not go further than our own neighbourhood of Taman Desa, thanks to fellow resident and Yokohama-born entrepreneur Seiji Fujimoto.
A former Isetan general manager, he has successively opened three casual Japanese food outlets offering udon, yakiniku and yakitori in Taman Desa since 2009.
Fujimoto is not a chef by training but says, “After living and working in both Japan and Malaysia, I wanted to take some of Tokyo’s street food culture back with me to Kuala Lumpur.”
Oodles of udon goodness
Start with lunch at Sanuki Udon, Fujimoto’s first and possibly most famous izakaya. Come early to grab a table before the office crowd arrives.
Everyone’s looking to fill their bellies with affordable, unpretentious fare – bowls of udon noodles served on its own or with toppings such as wakame (seaweed), kitsune (deep-fried sweet tofu pouches) and kakiage (mixed vegetable tempura). The House Special comes with a single soft-boiled egg and a sprinkle of spring onion – all you need, really.
Here, the thick wheat-flour noodles are known for their silky-smooth texture, perfectly cooked to provide an al dente bite. Fujimoto notes that Sanuki udon is a Kagawa specialty originally brought to Japan from Tang-dynasty China almost 2,000 years ago by the venerated Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi.
“It was only later that Sanuki udon became popular with the rest of Japan. In Tokyo, young people head to Sanuki udon shops for quick, filling meals between bouts of shopping.”
It’s this market segment that Fujimoto is targeting in KL – youthful local diners eager for a taste of Japanese street food culture – though many regular patrons also come from Taman Desa’s sizeable expatriate Japanese community.
As an expat himself, Fujimoto knows how it feels to miss the food of home. However, he adds, “I’ve always enjoyed Malaysian food. Some local favourites include prawn noodles, chicken rice and pan mee. In fact, it was my love for pan mee that gave me the idea to introduce Sanuki udon in KL as I find both noodles are prized more for their texture.
BBQ under the stars
While Fujimoto’s first venture is housed in a conventional shophouse, his next izakaya offers al fresco dining, albeit tucked in a back-alley. Customers don’t seem to mind being exposed to the elements; being able to grill meat or yakiniku under the stars is part of the charm.
At the Japanese BBQ gerai makan, we begin our D.I.Y. dinner experience with the formidably-named Genghis Khan (or Jingisukan). This turns out to be well-marinated pieces of lamb served on a sizzling hotplate, a Japanese-meets-Mongolian delicacy.
Flavourful and tender, this meaty appetiser merely hints at the carnivore’s feast to come. Our smörgåsbord of thinly sliced raw meat ready for grilling comprises short ribs (baraniku), pork belly (butabara), shoulder loin (kata), and beef brisket (katabara).
Fujimoto notes that, unlike Americans who prefer “safer” grilled meats like steak, the Japanese enjoy organ meats very much. “Some customers even ask for the heart (hatsu), baby intestine (kobukuro) and pork throat (nankotsu), which is actually edible soft bone.”
The izakaya don’s adventurous palate may have come from his pilot father who used to bring him unusual foods from wherever he flew.
Fujimoto adds, “My mother taught cooking classes while my grandfather ran a chain of restaurants in Fukuoka where my family originated from. You could say I was born into a family of food lovers.”
Don’t leave without ordering motsu nikomi, a nourishing stew of pork offal, and ojiya, a bowl of stewed rice with egg that resembles a Japanese risotto. You don’t have to be from the Land of the Rising Sun to appreciate comfort food that warms the soul.
The return of the yakitori
Long-time fans of the grilled chicken meat skewers at Sanuki Udon were dismayed when the yakitori were replaced with battered-and-deep-fried kushiage, surely a distant second to the original.
Strange that Fujimoto would remove such a popular item from his menu. The mystery was finally solved months later when he unveiled his latest izakaya specialising in yakitori not far away from his Japanese BBQ outlet.
Maruhi Sakaba offers a more extensive array of grilled meats such as kampong chicken thigh, pork belly, pork cheeks, okra, mushrooms, and plenty of offal. Unlike his Japanese BBQ place, patrons don’t have to get their hands dirty grilling the meats here; there is a yakitori master in the kitchen personally handling every stick ordered.
Our favourites here have to be the crispy and savoury grilled chicken wings that need no sauce to accompany them, and the grilled cherry tomatoes wrapped in bacon that pop juicily in your mouth.
Fujimoto is glad we approve. He says, “It’s not easy to figure out what customers consider good or bad. One day, they may find this dish is too oily, but tomorrow it may be just right. I believe that our taste-buds depend greatly on our mood.”
We couldn’t agree more. In addition to the popular skewers, other items such as buta kakuni, a dish of braised pork, cold tofu and scallions, or a bowl of rice with minced meat and seaweed, are simple but deeply satisfying.
There are options for thrill-seekers too. For lovers of raw fish sashimi, how about trying pork liver sashimi? Or perhaps slippery rolls of pork intestine carpaccio topped with a raw egg yolk? (Warning: these are not for the faint-hearted.)
The Muji philosophy of izakayas
“Have you heard of Muji?” Fujimoto asks me. I nod my head, though what the famous Japanese no-brand brand could have to do with his izakaya empire is beyond me.
He explains, “I’m trying to employ the Muji-rishi philosophy with my shops and introduce these food concepts to younger customers while they are still at school or at college. In time, they will grow up eating this style of udon and barbecue, and will accept more types of Japanese food. But first, we have to start small and simple.”
It’s clear that Fujimoto prefers nurturing a steady and appreciative clientele to starting the next big food fad in town. While it’s essential that dishes are served speedily at his shops, he’s not keen on creating a fast food franchise: “I believe consumers want something that is unique or only available here, rather than something mass-produced.”
There’s a bit of the maverick in Fujimoto as he’s not averse to trying new things and taking risks; he places his faith in the fickle Malaysian palate and then waits with bated breath to see if his bets pay off. Judging by the packed tables at his izakayas, my guess is that he’s already hit the jackpot.
No. 9, Jalan Bukit Desa 5, Taman Bukit Desa, Kuala Lumpur
Open Tue-Sun 12pm-3pm and 6pm-9:30pm; closed on Mondays
Taishú Yakiniku Japanese BBQ
Center Court, Plaza Faber, Jalan Desa Jaya, Taman Desa, Kuala Lumpur
Open Tue-Sun 6pm till late; closed on Mondays
Maruhi Sakaba Yakitori
6A, Plaza Faber, Jalan Desa Jaya, Taman Desa, Kuala Lumpur
Open Tue-Sun 6pm till late; closed on Mondays
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail, 19 September 2013.