JEDDAH: The Japanese cuisine goodwill ambassador to the Middle East is working hard to spread awareness of his nation’s food, ingredients and culinary expertise in a Saudi market he believes would enjoy more exposure to Japanese culture and traditions.
“I want to share with everyone I know, really, ‘Ana Saeed’ (I’m happy). I want to see more food exchange between Japan and Saudi Arabia,” said chef Taki Sato.
When he came to Saudi Arabia, Sato discovered that the people there prefer a fusion of Japanese and mainstream flavors and methods of cooking, so he had to adapt as part of what he now realizes was a career renaissance.
“I recognize that there are two types of Saudi Arabian people who love Japanese cuisine,” he said. The first type “love sushi deep-fried,” he explained, while the second type has more of an all-round appreciation of “for example, fresh fish and very specific Japanese ingredients.”
He added: “Most of the Saudi Arabian people are the first type: sushi, deep-fry and noodles.”
Sato, who has nearly 30 years of experience as a chef, was appointed the first chef as Japanese cuisine goodwill ambassador to the Middle East in 2019 by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. He is tasked with using his professional knowledge and experience to promote and provide information about Japanese cuisine and food culture.
His responsibilities as part of this mission include educating chefs about Japanese food, teaching them the culinary skills needed for Japanese food-preparation techniques, and training them how to use ingredients to create “umami.”
Umami, a “very rich and specific” savory taste, is a popular flavor characteristic in Japanese cuisine that Sato said he hopes to “synchronize” with Saudi food culture.
“I’m also brand ambassador for Wakame, in addition to being in communication with the Japanese government,” he said. “We must deepen the bonds between Saudi Arabia and Japan through the exchange of food, culinary expertise and culture.”
Food exports from Japan to Saudi Arabia total only $16.8 million, according to recent figures from the Observatory of Economic Complexity, while Saudi food exports to Japan are tiny.
“The Japanese government wants to share our chefs’ techniques and ingredients, and it wants me to promote this exchange of training,” he said. “In Saudi Arabia, a lot of the chefs want to learn.”
Sato recently held a sushi-rolling workshop in Riyadh that attracted 100 locals, who participated as beginners. In April next year he plans to bring Michelin Star chefs from Japan to the region to host more workshops for professional chefs.
He came to the Middle East 10 years ago, initially working at Zuma, one of the leading Japanese restaurants in Dubai. Two years later he moved to Riyadh to become executive chef of Yokari, before moving to Wakame in Jeddah.
Sato said that as he attempted to maintain the authenticity of Japanese cuisine while combining it with mainstream fusion flavors and techniques to cater to local tastes, he became more creative in his cooking.
25 percent of the ingredients are imported directly from Japan by an affiliate food distribution company to Wakame, and the other 75 percent is from a local supplier, but believes improved availability of authentic Japanese ingredients would help increase the local appreciation of traditional Japanese food.
Meanwhile, he has served as an advisor on a MAFF project to introduce the Japanese food and culinary art experience to leading Saudi chefs. They include Yasser Jad, the president of the Saudi Arabian Chefs Association, who Sato said is interested in further collaborations and food-culture exchanges between Japan and the Kingdom, and Khulood Olaqi, Saudi Arabia’s first female sushi expert and the owner of Oishii Sushi in Riyadh.
Sato also sits on the board of several food culture expansion projects in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, including the Cool Japan Fund, which aims to boost demand for Japanese products and services overseas, educational institute Tokyo Culinary and Confectionary Arts Academy, and cooking competitions World Sushi Cup and Washoku World Challenge.
Statistics from the OEC reveal that the total value of Saudi exports to Japan increased at an annualized rate of 4.24 percent from $9.05 billion in 1995 to $24.5 billion in 2019. The main products were crude petroleum, worth $23 billion, refined petroleum ($537 million), and acyclic alcohols $255 million).
The value of exports from Japan to Saudi Arabia increased at an annualized rate of 3.37 percent from $2.95 billion in 1995 to $6.55 billion in 2019. They include cars ($3.72 billion), delivery trucks ($399 million), and automotive parts $223 million).
A Japanese-Saudi electronic sports competition took place on Oct. 2 and 3. Organizers said they hope the event will help to strengthen ties between the two nations, promote their cultures and enrich the global economy.