A Japanese soul in a kosher kitchen

Love is the reason that Israelis who keep kosher now have the chance to taste an immense variety of genuine Japanese dishes.

Aki Tamora (photo credit: courtesy)
Aki Tamora
(photo credit: courtesy)
Aki Tamora is found in the evenings at the Minato restaurant in Herzliya, creating food that follows Japan’s culinary traditions down to the finest detail. You would expect nothing less from a fourthgeneration sushi chef.
When one enters the restaurant, the cool, modern Japanese décor gives off a feeling of calm, just as the sight of Tamora serenely rolling sushi assures you that dinner will be excellent. You could be having a leisurely meal at a Tokyo restaurant, except for one big difference: All the food at Minato is kosher.
Love is the reason that Israelis who keep kosher now have the chance to taste an immense variety of genuine Japanese dishes. Tamora and his wife, Sarit, met in Tokyo in 1991 while she was touring Japan after completing her military service in the IDF and preparing for studies in Japanese language and culture at the Hebrew University. Over the next several years, the two maintained a long-distance romance, each flying back and forth to fit the relationship into the demands of studies and career. Five years after meeting, they married and settled in Israel.
“I left everything in Japan to marry Sarit,” says Tamora.
Master chef for nine years at the Minato sushi bar in Caesarea, Tamora then moved to the Herzliya restaurant of the same name two years ago. Minato means “harbor” and is the name of one of Tokyo’s neighborhoods. Tamora grew up there. To accommodate all streams of the Israeli public, both businesses are under kosher supervision. One online reviewer commented wryly, “Minato has the best Japanese food in the country, even though it’s kosher.”
Judging from Tamora’s family history, the best is what it should be.
“My family has maintained the same sushi restaurant in Tokyo for the past 80 years,” he told Metro. “It’s right next door to our house. We ate our meals there. I was always in and out, watching how sushi was made from my earliest childhood. My mother also works with my father at the restaurant. It’s part of our home.”
What does it take to become a sushi chef? Apparently, it’s not so simple.
“You must learn many, many things before you start cooking sushi,” explains Tamora. “Cooking only comes after several years of studying how to slice fish, cook rice and arrange vegetables.
In Japan, there are a million kinds of fish and seafood, each needing to be cut according to its own particular system.
There are many varieties of the same creature: shrimps and calamari, for example. You have to know each one and how to process each one,” he says.
“I started helping my father at age 12,” he recounts. “ After school, I’d clean fish, prepare vegetables, simple things like that. From my father, I mostly learned how to prepare the food. Then I went on to work in other traditional Japanese restaurants that aren’t dedicated to sushi. It takes eight to 10 years to become a sushi chef. I even worked in an Italian restaurant in Tokyo. I also worked in a fish store. I got a lot of valuable experience there.”
Asked how it is working with only kosher ingredients, Tamora laughs.
“Everyone asks me that! Working kosher is easier, no doubt about it. It’s less work.
I don’t have to think so much. And I like knowing that observant customers enjoy the food. But for me, it’s hard.
Japanese cuisine is about 60 percent seafood. Sushi traditionally offers 20 kinds of fish, and even more of seafood.
In my soul, I feel the lack,” he admits.
“Adjusting to life in Israel was difficult at first,” Tamora continues. “Actually, it still is. The Israeli mentality, the behavior and culture are so different. Like when people push ahead of you in line. In Japan, everyone takes a place in line, and that’s it; no discussion. Israeli chutzpah is hard to get used to, even after 22 years.
It’s all right because I’m with Sarit; but without her, I’d return to Japan.”
Home life for the couple is a mix of cultures, with the balance tipping towards the Japanese way of life.
“We have Israeli and Japanese friends.
Sarit speaks good Japanese [and Tamora speaks Hebrew well]. She prefers Japanese food, but I cook all kinds of food at home. I’m open-minded about food and eat shwarma, falafel, couscous, humous, pasta. But I love seafood best… calamari, octopus,” he says.
Asked how he sees his future in Israel, Tamora answers, “I’m a permanent resident in Israel, but I’m Japanese, period. We might retire to Japan some day; we’re thinking it over. It’s very hard, being far from family. My parents are getting old. When we were younger, distance didn’t matter, but it’s getting harder now.”
Final words of culinary advice from Tamora: “Soy sauce is very important. Real, Japanese soy sauce, the Kikoman or Yamasa brands. The locally made Chinese and Thai sauces aren’t good for real Japanese cooking. And use real Japanese rice for taste, texture and size.
It’s different from all other types of rice,” he says.
“Restaurants here are nothing like restaurants in Japan. There, each restaurant is dedicated to one type of food, like tempura or ramen soup. You won’t find tempura in a sushi place, for example. But it’s not like that in Israel, where customers expect to find a wide range of typical foods in one place. I’d advise someone trying Japanese food for the first time to eat ramen soup, then go on to sushi or yakatori.”
Given the dozens of food choices at Minato, I advise getting familiar with the menus before visiting the restaurant so as not to get bewildered. Menus are available on the restaurant’s website: www.minato.co.il.
Minato Kosher Japanese Restaurant 8 Hamenofim Street, Herzliya Pituah Herzliya (09) 773-1703 Caesarea (04) 636-0812Marinated Fried Chicken (Tori Kara-ageh) Makes 1 serving
This dish goes well with an alcoholic beverage such as whiskey.
50 gr. chicken breast ½ cup cornstarch Canola oil for deep frying
For marinade: ½ cup soy sauce ¼ cup sake 2 Tbsp. freshly grated ginger root 1 crushed garlic clove
For dipping sauce: 4 Tbsp. mayonnaise Chili oil (infuse chilis in hot canola oil and let steep for 24 hours)
For serving: 1 slice lemon 1 cucumber 3 fresh cabbage leaves
Mix soy sauce, sake, ginger and garlic. Slice chicken breast into 5 strips. Marinate the chicken in the soy sauce mixture for 2-24 hours.
Remove chicken strips from marinade and roll them in cornstarch until well covered on all sides.
Heat oil in a wok or frying pan to 180°. Fry until chicken is golden.
Mix dipping sauce ingredients to taste.
Slice cabbage leaves thinly. Slice the cucumber into thin strips. Arrange cabbage on a dinner plate and place chicken on top. Serve cucumber and lemon slice separately. To eat, dip chicken and vegetables into sauce.