Washoku Blog

Koji Koike Dishes Up Sushi in Singapore

By yuri, Posted on 04/08/2017


Eat it now!
I recently visited Singapore because I was curious to know about Sushi chef Koji Koike. He opened Sushi 36 (Sabu Roku), in early 2017. Chef Koike is passionate about bringing sushi culture to the next level, “NOBU raised the world’s awareness of sushi culture with the California sushi roll. Nowadays, people all over the world know about sushi. This has been fantastic for the Japanese food culture. However, for the next generation, where we are now, I want to bring sushi culture up to the next level.” He says. I was really looking forward to hearing his story over his sushi.

Washoku chef Koji Koike

He welcomed me into his sushi bar at 7pm on 29th July. Singapore does not have four seasons like Japan does. It’s almost always hot, humid and summery. However, unlike Sydney, Singapore is able to get fresh seafood everyday from the famous Tsukiji fish markets in Tokyo. Consequently, Chef Koike’s customers can enjoy the same seasonal varieties that people do in Japan. This is especially important because Washoku is a seasonal cuisine with spring, summer, autumn and winter all being reflected in the dishes prepared by washoku chefs. The seasonal requirement for washoku dishes is problematic for washoku chefs living outside of Japan. In fact, all of the washoku chefs I have met in Australia say that this is the most difficult thing they have to deal with;  getting the seasonal ingredients which they need for washoku.

Sushi 36 is extremely fortunate to have a chef who cares about providing fresh, seasonal seafood to his customers so that they can enjoy true, washoku cuisine. Shikomi (prepared seafood), is showcased for customers to see in nice glass topped wooden boxes. To my mind, the shikomi looked very artistic; even beautiful. It was most certainly fresh and delicious!

To start, I ordered masu sake. Masu sake is sake served in a square wooden cup called a masu. I like the slight woody flavour that comes through with the sake when you drink it from a masu. In fact, if you like, you can put a touch of salt on the edge of the wooden cup to add to the flavour (just like some do with a glass of tequila!). From my experience, it’s not easy to find masu sake outside of Japan, especially in Sydney, though it is sometimes available for celebrations. I must say; I was very happy to start with my masu sake 🙂

We started with Isaki sashimi. Isaki is one of my favourite white fishes and it is known as Grunt fish in English. It is not normally found in Australia as it comes from the Western Atlantic Ocean, not the Pacific. The Isaki sashimi at Sushi 36 was perfectly seared aburi style. The size was perfectly portioned with just the right balance of fat and texture. It was truly delicious.

The shell fish used in this dish was still alive when it came time to prepare. This is truly amazing when you realise it had come all the way from Hokkaido! Shell fish are known as kai in Japan and the ones used on this night are known as nimai gai. Interestingly, I have not had nimai gai outside of Japan before, as they are very hard to export/import from Japan. The dish Chef Koji made expertly paired the nimai gai with eggplant from Senshu, Osaka and it’s called ishigaki gai. The texture was simply wonderful. I really love this particular eggplant; it is normally eaten as a sashimi vegetable or pickled.

When spring passes and summer begins, goma saba, a type of mackerel, is in season. Some people believe that goma saba has too strong a fishy smell than other types of mackerel. “This goma saba is not fishy smelling at all because of where it came from and when it was caught. How do I know these things? Because I have a strong connection with the fishermen who caught it,” says Chef Koji. Yes, I agree; the goma saba was not strong and fishy smelling at all. Rich in good fat and paired with the Japanese herb bouhu 防風, also imported from Japan, the dish was absolutely delicious and most definitely prepared at the perfect time to eat.

Amadai, a sweet snapper, comes in three types: red, yellow and white. Of the three, the white skin amadai is the most expensive. The dish was grilled in the kitchen by Elvis, who learned about Japanese cuisine at several izakaya restaurants before coming under the wing of the master, Chef Koji. Elvis is responsible for the grilled dishes and the amadai, as with all of his dishes, was perfectly cooked on the night.

Before we start on the sushi dishes we had for the night, I should tell you that Chef Koji’s sushi is prepared in the Edo style and is called Edomae sushi (Edo was the old name for Tokyo during the Edo period or Tokugawa period of 1603 and 1868 in Japan. Edomaesushi literally translates as Edo style, so it means Tokyo style sushi). Edomae sushi is already seasoned by the chef; so you don’t need to dip it into soy sauce. Chef Koji likes to serve his sushi directly to your hand when he thinks it is the perfect temperature for eating. Think I’m joking? No I’m not! Actually, this is the traditional way of eating sushi. I highly recommend that you try it if you ever get the chance and that you go with how the chef recommends and serves you – so don’t add extra soy sauce and eat it with your hand just after  you have been handed your sushi!
If you see something shaped like this, it’s called oshibori, you can use it for cleaning your fingers so you can eat sushi just using your hand instead of chopsticks.

Gari, the pickled ginger that’s often put on your plate or served as a side, is, in my opinion, one way to find out the quality of a restaurant. Some people love gari more than sushi, “no way”, I have to say, but I did love Chef Koji’s gari. Good quality gari tastes different from restaurant to restaurant. Find a good restaurant with good gari and enjoy it, I say!

天然縞鯵Shima aji- Trevally

天然縞鯵Shima aji- Trevally

金目鯛 Alfonshino, Golden snapper

金目鯛 Alfonshino, Golden snapper

本鮪 Blue fin tuna

本鮪 Blue fin tuna

桜えびのかき揚げ tempura

桜えびのかき揚げ tempura

White asparagus

White asparagus

Tuna and toro soup

Tuna and toro soup

Chef Koji believes that it’s important to make recipes simple. Being simple is not only important for flavour, but it also means that it’s easy for his staff to remember. This soup is made from only dashi, mirin and sake. I could feel Chef Koji’s passion in training his staff and in supporting them in one day opening their own restaurants. This is part of his dream, and passion, of expanding better quality Japanese food culture through trained chefs.

新子Shinko

I don’t remember when I was fortunate enough to eat shinko since I moved from Japan to Australia to live. For me, and many others, shinko is one of the tastiest and greatest pleasures that you can experience in a  sushi restaurant. Shinko is a baby fish (Japanese Gizzard Shad) that is about the size of your thumb and is very difficult to prepare. In fact, it takes about 2 hours for an experienced chef to make. Because it is so labour intensive few sushi chefs choose to make it. Then there is the cost. For example, toro the highly prized fatty belly blue fin tuna and uni (sea urchin), are two very expensive seafoods. But shinko tops the list for the most expensive at 75,000 yen per kilo as it was priced at the start of the season in the Tsukiji fish market this year. This means it costs more than 3,000 yen for each little piece. Can you believe it?! Of course, sushi restaurants can’t charge so much, but why then do they make it? This is the question that Ryan, sushi chef in-training under Chef Koji, kept asking himself. However, after a while, when he saw the demand for shinko and he learned more about the art of making sushi, he came to understand something else. For some chefs, like Koji, making shinko is a way of showing their appreciation to their valued customers; it’s not all about making money.
新子Shinko

新子Shinko

新子Shinko

新子Shinko

赤身鮪 Tuna

赤身鮪 Tuna

Eat it now! This is the thought that comes to mind when a sushi chef places a piece of delicious sushi in your hand. Sushi is already a delicious dish, but it can be even more. Delicately and deliciously seasoned and then served at just the right temperature for eating. So, my suggestion for you is is this: if a sushi chef places a piece of sushi in your hand, then you should definitely eat it straight away! If you remember this, dear sushi lovers, then you won’t be disappointed!

 

Ryan is standing on the right, next to Elvis. Ryan only started his washoku training this year after a career in classical French cuisine. I asked him why he chose to change his career from French to Japanese cuisine? After all, Japanese cuisine is one of the most difficult and detailed cuisines to be trained in (though I am sure that French cuisine is not easy either!). He said that he was once told that all the best chefs in the world were either Japanese or French chefs and he thought, what if I could merge the two? He said that he was very fortunate to meet Chef Koji and didn’t want to miss the opportunity to learn from him. All the best to him I say! I was very impressed to witness his passion to learn from Chef Koji. He stood near Chef Koji, watching him at all times, ever ready to offer a second pair of hands when needed. Watching Ryan it was very hard to believe that he has only been training this year! Chef Koji says that it is people like Ryan and Elvis that are the reason he wanted to open his restaurant in Singapore so that he could train non-Japanese chefs, out of Japan how to make proper sushi and expand quality sushi culture and Japanese cuisine. Ryan is proud to be taking up taking that opportunity.

Thank you for the wonderful opportunity to experience sushi in Singapore, Master Washoku Chef Koji. If you are looking for a sensational food experience in Singapore, I highly recommended that you go to Sushi 36.

Address: 36 Circular Rd, Singapore 049392