Sushi may be synonymous with Japanese cuisine, and ubiquitous throughout São Paulo, but Japan’s cuisine is far richer and more diverse than that, varying as much with the changing seasons as it does by region.
For a dizzying immersion in Japanese regional cuisine, São Paulo’s annual Festival do Japão (13-15 July 2012) is a must, where you can try local delicacies from nearly all of Japan’s 47 prefectures (provinces) – some imported specially for the weekend-long event.
And then beyond the festival, and beyond the familiar world of temaki and tempura, dive into Liberdade, the historical heartland of the Japanese community in São Paulo, for a taste of regional Japan all year round.
Tongue-tied on tour
Starting our tour, we met Festival do Japão organiser Akinori Sonoda for a bite to eat at one of Liberdade’s most authentic spots, Deigo. ‘This isn’t a place that’s easy for [non-Japanese] Brazilians to come to,’ says Sonoda, himself a first-generation immigrant from Kagoshima. ‘Here, 99 per cent of the people speak Japanese – but the menu is in Portuguese, too.’
Deigo, a low-frills dinner spot marked by red lanterns and a sign in Japanese, is an outpost of Japan’s southern islands, Okinawa, from the choice of dishes right down to the name. (Deigo is the official flower of Okinawa.) The husband-and-wife team who run the place were both born in Okinawa, and when they’re not juggling whole octopi and slabs of pork, they’re sharing a beer with the regulars at the counter.
Okinawan food is famous for its use of pork and the bitter melon known as goya. ‘Go for the goya tempura (R$30) or the tebichi stewed pork knuckle (R$35),’ recommends Sonoda. Or, if you prefer your meat a little less fatty, the Okinawa-style soba is a gem of a dish, with wheat noodles, stewed pork, egg, kamaboko (fish cake), sliced spring onions and pink, pickled ginger.
Move from one end of the Japanese archipelago to the other via a steaming bowl of Hokkaido-style miso ramen, topped with corn, kombu (kelp) and a melting hunk of butter at Lamen Kazu. The homemade noodles are also served here with shoyu (soy sauce) and shio (salt) broths. Originally from China, ramen took on the flavours and ingredients of various regions throughout Japan, and Hokkaido’s miso ramen (though one of the more expensive options on the menu at Lamen Kazu) is perfectly suited to colder climes.
Right across the street from Lamen Kazu is the larger Espaço Kazu, opened less than a year ago by the same folk behind Lamen Kazu. Families fill the Japanese-style cafeteria while a younger crowd head upstairs to Go!Go!Curry, a fast-food diner franchise based out of Kanazawa, in Western Japan, with a branch in Times Square, New York.
‘We import curry from Kanazawa,’ explains a friendly employee. ‘It’s darker than regular curry.’ Indeed, sludgier than your usual Japanese curry and sweeter than most Indian ones, Go!Go!Curry’s main draw, Kanazawa curry, hits the spot for its warmth and breaded-pork-cutlet sustenance.
Japanese food Mecca
Regional Japanese fare wouldn’t be complete without a taste of Osaka, one of Japan’s largest cities and a Mecca for food connoisseurs. Those with iron constitutions should head to the bare-bones evening eatery Ueda, upstairs in the Japanese restaurant complex known simply as Food Center, to sample the horumon-yaki (grilled beef or pork offal). The dish was brought to the Japanese culinary scene primarily by Korean immigrants in Osaka, and literally translates as ‘discarded goods’.
For Osakan food that’s less meat-heavy, head to the charming Izakaya Issa, a small Japanese gastrobar where patrons grab a perch at the counter or remove their shoes to climb into one of three cosy booths. According to Sonoda, it’s one of the few places around serving two of Osaka’s specialities, okonomiyaki (a savoury Japanese pancake) and tako-yaki (fried octopus balls), both garnished with bonito fish flakes and sprinkles of dried nori seaweed. Spear the golden doughy balls with a toothpick if you want to eat them like they do in Japan.
For dessert, the sweet-toothed can round off their culinary tour with saké and a bowl of hot zensai (a sweet soup of azuki beans and mochi rice-paste balls) at the Liberdade old-timer, Kabura. Staying open until 1.30am mid-week, the bar is run by brothers Hitoshi and Satoshi, providing a lively refuge from the eerie quiet of the Liberdade streets until long after most local eateries have shut up shop.
Deigo is at Praça Almeida Júnior 25, 3207 0317
Espaço Kazu is at Rua Thomaz Gonzaga 84, 3208 6179. Read more on Espaço Kazu
Izakaya Issa is at Rua Barão de Iguape 89, 3208 8819, izakaya-issa.com
Kabura is at Rua Galvão Bueno 346, 3277 2918
Lamen Kazu is at Rua Tomaz Gonzaga 51, 3277 4286, lamenkazu.com.br
Ueda is at Rua da Glória 111, 2nd floor, 3242 2080