Break fast with Japanese food

Tuck into a Ramadan buffet or dine at the first halal character- themed pop-up at new Muslim-owned and halal Japanese restaurants here

From Mediterranean to mod-Sin, Muslim diners are spoilt for choice when it comes to breaking their fast in halal or Muslim-owned eateries during the holy month of Ramadan, which started yesterday.

Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from dawn till dusk during the annual fasting month. Its end is marked by Hari Raya Aidilfitri, which falls on June 25 this year.

Every year, restaurants and cafes up the ante by introducing new cuisines and creative dishes for iftar, the meal served at sunset to mark the end of the daily fast.

This year, halal Japanese food is showing up prominently.

At least five new eateries are offering Japanese or Japanese-inspired nosh. They include the month-old Muslim-owned Hararu Izakaya in Bussorah Street, which has been drawing crowds with its grilled and barbecued tapas and mocktails; and Isuramuya, a Japanese restaurant-cum-marketplace in JCube mall. The restaurant section obtained its halal certificate in February.

These new additions are on top of long-time halal Japanese restaurants such as the Hei Sushi and Ramen Ten chains.

The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, which certifies halal eateries here, says there has been an 85 per cent increase in halal Japanese eateries over the past two years. There are now about 90 of them.

The burgeoning appetite for Japanese food among Muslims here can be attributed to a growing number of travellers to Japan in the past year, exposing them to the food culture there.

Mr Calvin Cheah, 46, owner of Isuramuya, says: "The demand for Japanese halal food is growing. More restaurants and food suppliers in Japan are getting their halal certification in anticipation of the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020, to cater to more Muslim tourists."

Popular dishes at the 60-seat restaurant include fried edamame sticks, spicy miso ramen and salmon sashimi.

There is also a grocery section that stocks more than 50 halal products, from frozen gyoza to ice cream.

Mr Cheah says business has doubled since the restaurant was certified halal three months ago, with Muslims accounting for 70 per cent of its diners.

For French-Japanese cafe Kumoya in Jalan Klapa, going halal was a way to stand out from the intense competition among cafes here.

Its operations manager Joseph Koh, 41, says: "Muslim diners are getting more affluent and looking for places to hang out in Kampong Glam. Our business went up by 20 to 30 per cent after we turned halal."

After the eight-month-old cafe was certified halal in January, it added to its menu 12 savoury dishes, such as waffles with seafood tempura and Japanese curry, as well as cold udon.

The cafe is also hosting the first halal character-themed pop-up here. Till Aug 13, the food and decor will be based on Cinnamoroll, Sanrio's fluffy puppy character.

For Ramadan, Kumoya will also introduce dishes such as duck confit with okonomiyaki and baked Cajun chicken with Japanese curry mashed potatoes next month.

One of the early halal Japanese eateries here is The Ramen Stall, which was certified in 2015.

Mr Bryant Guan, 36, its head of marketing and communications, says: "We identified a business opportunity to provide halal food for the supper crowd without facing much competition."

The restaurant opens until 6am during Ramadan.

However, it was a "huge challenge" to convert the menu of more than 100 dishes into a halal one. For the ramen, the pork broth was replaced with a broth boiled with whole chickens for 30 hours. The team also spent six months sending every ingredient, down to the vinegar and soya sauce, to be checked that they are free of alcohol and pork.

The effort has paid off as business has gone up.

Mr Guan says there is a 45-minute wait during peak dining periods at the 100-seat restaurant. It sells about 300 bowls of ramen daily. Popular dishes include Volcano Ramen, which comes with a fiery chilli paste, and the sashimi set.

To cope with the mounting demand, it will open another halal outlet later this year. It also started a franchised stall, The Ramen Express, in Changi Village, in March. To free up more dining space in the restaurants, it also plans to start a central kitchen to prepare sauces and ingredients in bulk.

Creating a buzz among the Muslim community is the recently opened Hararu Izakaya in Kampong Glam, which offers a Ramadan buffet ($30+ a person) that comprises 12 tapas-style dishes such as yakisoba, gyu nitsuke (misoseasoned beef shortribs) and mocktails.

Upmarket Japanese restaurant Santaro by Gion in Amara hotel has rolled out three a la carte buffets (from $56 a person), in which diners can choose from more than 50 dishes, including steak, Boston lobster and sashimi. Groups of four get a free ketupat oshizushi, a pressed sushi block adorned with woven tamago and avocado.

Diners are lapping up the slew of halal Japanese food.

Housewife Nora Abdullah, 36, who has dined at Hararu Izakaya, says: "I have visited Japan for work and the food here is pretty authentic. It feels like dining in an izakaya in Japan."

Hotel lobby manager Jais Abdul Rahman, 65, who visited Santaro by Gion, says: "With more halal Japanese food here, I need not travel to Kuala Lumpur and Johor Baru for a Japanese meal. There is still room for more Japanese eateries here for more people to have a chance to explore the cuisine."


Tapas-style dishes and mocktails at Hararu Izakaya

Izakaya or Japanese gastropubs are casual watering holes where diners enjoy bar bites and drinks.

Naturally, when Hararu Izakaya in Kampong Glam opened last month, the Muslim-owned restaurant attracted much buzz among diners, even though no alcohol is served there. Hararu means halal in Japanese .

Instead, co-owners Wahida Wahid, 27, and Diet Hidayat, 35, hoped to re-create the fun and convivial atmosphere that is often associated with the izakaya experience.

Ms Wahida says: "Halal Japanese food options in Singapore are rather sparse and do not go beyond the usual sushi and sashimi. A lot of Muslims are curious to try what authentic Japanese food is like."

And the response has been good. The 80-seat restaurant is "overwhelmed", she says. Reservations are recommended.

The menu comprises about 60 tapas-style dishes that are grouped according to yakimono (grilled dishes), kushiyaki (skewers of grilled meat or vegetables), agemono (deep-fried dishes) and nimono (simmered dishes).

Popular dishes include gyu nitsuke (miso-seasoned beef shortribs, $14), surume ika (grilled squid, $16) and mixed seafood nabemono, or hotpot, with daikon, leeks and Japanese mushrooms ($22).

The menu is the brainchild of Mr Diet, who was an operations manager and chef at an izakaya chain here for 5 1/2 years.

About 90 per cent of the ingredients are imported from Japan.

Drinks-wise, diners can sip on Nippon-inspired mocktails such as The Matcha Egg ($14), a concoction of matcha, hazelnut, egg white and lemon juice; and the Japanese Twisted Chendol ($14), a blend of non-alcoholic Blue Curacao and macadamia syrups, Calpis and mango and orange juices.

The two-storey 2,700 sq ft shophouse unit is covered in murals of geisha and Japanese streetscapes by artist Belz Hermann. On the second floor is a tatami seating section adorned with lanterns.


Special sauces at Santaro by Gion

How to cook Japanese food without one of the most fundamental ingredients, sake?

That was the question that plagued Madam Wang Yanli, 53, owner of Japanese restaurant Santaro by Gion in Amara Singapore hotel, for two years. The 70-seat restaurant received its halal certification in October last year.

The restaurant, formerly known as Gion Dining, operated at Royal Plaza on Scotts for two years before relocating in the middle of last year.

Madam Wang, who used to run a chain of Japanese restaurants in her hometown of Beijing, was not satisfied with the halal versions of soya sauce and mirin as they are "too sweet".


Madam Wang Yanli, owner of halal Japanese restaurant Santaro by Gion, tweaks halal sauces with natural sugars to add fragrance. ST PHOTO: DAVE LIM

Instead, she decided to tweak them.

After numerous experiments with former head chef Matsuno Mikio and spending $300,000 on ingredients and equipment, she found a solution.

She cooks a mixture of fruit and carrots till they turn into a pulp. The natural sugars are extracted and added to the commercial halal sauces.

She says in Mandarin: "The natural sugars accentuate the fragrance of the sauces."

She adds that her journey cooking halal Japanese food was "fraught with many challenges".

"Before we managed to tweak the sauces, our food was in limbo. Chinese diners commented that it didn't taste like Japanese food, while Muslim diners suspected they were not getting the real deal."

On going the halal route, she says: "The local Japanese restaurant scene is already saturated, so this is one way to set myself apart."

Over the past two years, she has seen a threefold surge in business, with Muslim diners making up half her customers.

She plans to sell her blends of halal condiments to diners and restaurants and is working on dishes such as ramen and unagi donburi.


Other Ramadan offerings

HYDE & CO

Halal cafe Hyde & Co has a new online ordering platform, Take Hyde Out, to cope with the manpower crunch and greater demand for takeaways during Ramadan. Customers can order their food at order.hydeandco. com.sg

The new mod-Sin menu includes dishes such as Gnocchi "Mee Rebus" ($21.90), which has the dumplings and sambal sotong drenched in fermented bean sauce; and Satay Capellini ($19.90), with the pasta tossed in satay sauce and served with ngoh hiang (five-spiced meat roll), lemongrass satay and morning glory tempura.

For takeaways from tomorrow to June 25, order online by 4pm and pick up between 4.30 and 7pm. You can get 10 per cent off with the promo code "IFTARHYDEOUT".

Where: 785 North Bridge Road

Open: 11.30am to 2pm, 6 to 11pm (Mondays, Wednesdays to Fridays), 6 to 11pm (Tuesdays), 11.30am to 11pm (Saturdays), 11.30am to 6pm (Sundays)

Info: Call 6635-5785 or go to order.hydeandco.com.sg

HILTON SINGAPORE

Hilton Singapore debuts its halal-certified Ramadan pop-up buffet restaurant (from $58++ a person) in a 170-seat function room on the 24th storey. Dig into more than 90 dishes, including ikan masak assam pedas, beef rendang and Penang assam laksa. Look out for live carving stations with whole roasted lamb and ayam percik. There are also prayer rooms for guests.

Where: Panorama Room, Level 24, Hilton Singapore, 581 Orchard Road

Open: Till June 24, 6.30 to 10.30pm daily

Info: Call 8201 2290 or go to bit.ly/2s2vjwE

RHOMBUS PIZZA


(Above) Make your own 10cm pizzas at Rhombus Pizza. PHOTOS: RHOMBUS PIZZA

This Muslim-owned pizza buffet restaurant allows diners to make as many 10cm pizzas as they can eat within 90 minutes, at $15 a person. Choose from about 15 savoury and sweet ingredients, such as satay beef, pepperoni chicken, shrimp, blueberries and marshmallows. The buffet comes with mushroom soup and chicken Bolognese spaghetti. Reservations required.

Where: 01-02 WIS@Changi, 116 Changi Road

Open: 1 to 8.30pm daily

Info: Call 9844-0210 or go to www.facebook.com/rhombuspizzasg

THE LAB

Tuck into creative dishes whipped up by Muslim-owned cafe The Lab. New dishes created for Ramadan include Tam Lauk Quiche ($9) stuffed with beef keema and egg custard, Teriyaki Beef Wraps ($9), Mediterranean Meat Goulash ($17) with couscous and salad and Itik Percik ($17), grilled duck basted with sweet and spicy sauce and served with mashed potatoes and sauteed vegetables.

Where: 01-01, 1 Jalan Pisang

Open: Till June 24, 12.30 to 9.30pm, daily (closed tomorrow and this Tuesday)

Info: Call 6299-5681 or go to www.we-experiment.com

FATPAPAS

This offshoot of burger restaurant Fatboy's, which is co-owned by rapper Sheikh Haikel, offers two new Ramadan specials. The R&B Burger (from $20) has a beef patty, cheddar cheese, beef ribs, onion rings and pineapple salsa smothered in barbecue sauce, and the Together-Gather Platter ($99 for four people) includes a slab of country fried steak, beef ribs, chili chicken boners, chili queso, two burgers and French fries.

Where: 17 Bali Lane

Open: 5pm to 2am daily

Info: Call 9196-3717 or go to www.fatpapas.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 28, 2017, with the headline 'Break fast with Japanese food'. Print Edition | Subscribe