Americans are embracing Japanese culture like never before, with Pokemon Go, retro Nintendo games and strong cravings for ramen and sake. We sat down with Morimoto Asia's chef Yuhi Fujinaga, who works for the Iron Chef himself, to find out why.
Have you noticed visitors in Orlando have an increased affinity to Japanese culture?
Definitely. It’s a trend now, with anime, Japanese grocery products, and more modernized things that have trickled down from New York and California and it’s just started to hit here, very much so, and the food scene has definitely grown so much more. A lot of times, it has to do with logistics. It was very difficult to get those products here. And even for us, when we first opened here, it was very difficult to try to get fish from Japan.
So now you have the channels to get it here?
Chef Morimoto has worked with a lot of vendors directly in Japan to bring in the fish. There has been a lot of increases in warehouses building up near the airport of the Japanese trading companies, who have made a hub here in Orlando... At first, we could only get shipments once a week and they would come from New York and Miami. And now they have seen the volume we go through and at so many other restaurants around us. Now we get shipments three times a week and have gotten up to 23 types of fish before.
Other than your own restaurant, where else do you recommend getting Japanese cuisine?
One of my favorite go-to restaurants is Hanamizuki on I-Drive. It's more traditional Japanese they do over there.
What's the most authentic Japanese cuisine on your menu?
Our sushi is as traditional as it can get to Japan. We are one of the leading restaurants when it comes to traditional sushi here. A lot of the items aren’t necessarily on the menu based on the availability of what we get in from Japan three times a week. We encourage the guests to come in early (6 or 7 pm), and sit at the sushi bar and see what fish is there. They’ll actually prepare one piece of sushi for you at a time. I also recommend the cold sake off Chef Morimoto’s signature line. It’s amazing sake. The rice has been polished further, and the flavor develops a lot more strongly. Sake is such a versatile beverage. It pairs well with a lot of Asian ingredients, as spicy as Korean, as savory as Chinese cuisine or as delicate as sushi, and it will still marry together.
Tell me about the rise in ramen.
Ramen is comfort food in the Japanese culture. It’s a nice good closer. After you've gone out to a good meal, have a couple of drinks with friends, in Japan you stop by a ramen shop on the way home, it's like fast food, a late-night snack. For us chefs who eat late, nine out of 10 times, it’s ramen for us, too. In New York, the trend has been blowing up, and we’re seeing that buzz and that trend here now.
What makes good ramen?
Good ramen takes a lot of passion incorporated in all the ingredients. You might just think it’s soup and noodles but behind the scenes, there’s so much that goes into making sure you get the full flavor out of it. We leave the pork bone broth simmering for 36 hours and stir it every hour. It’s so meticulous. We're open until midnight Sunday through Thursday and until 1 [am] Friday and Saturday, so you can definitely go out or see a show at House of Blues, and it's very affordable to come in and have a ramen and a beer.
Is it okay to slurp ramen?
A lot of times, people are embarrassed to slurp, but in traditional Japan, you slurp it. The objective of it is so the noodles don’t overcook in your broth and the texture changes. You want to blow on it as you slurp it to cool it down before it reaches your palate.
What do you recommend to visitors who might be shy about Japanese—and Asian—cuisine?
Don’t be afraid of trying it out. Everything we serve here is an easy approach on all the items and not beyond your comfort level. Our menu is accessible, even if it’s your first time. We do have many new kinds of fish, but the flavor profiles are similar to say salmon, snapper, or tuna, that you’ve had before. Morimoto gets guests to try raw, try the Japanese beef. Just give it a try.