Samui Wining & Dining
Japanese Joys

From fine dining to humble eats, Japanese cuisine is alive and well on Samui.

From fine dining to humble eats, Japanese cuisine is alive and well on Samui.Red lanterns line a lane. Women with equally red umbrellas in ornate kimonos side-step formally dressed salarymen. Everyone wears an inscrutable expression. Japan, eh?

Japan gets a bad rap when it comes to clichés and false assumptions. Fortunately, as more and more people go there, the truth spreads. Always a place for fun, neither the country nor its population cares much for formality outside prescribed situations. Japan is particularly laid-back when it comes to eating and drinking (especially the latter). But the prejudices endure and impact Japanese cuisine when it’s transplanted overseas. Basically put: people are a tad nervous about eating Japanese. They shouldn’t be. It’s not mired in elaborate rituals unless you're in a very elegant restaurant or it’s a particularly special occasion. Take a look at the fundamentals of the cuisine in its most traditional sense, and you'll see it’s very simple: rice is served with miso soup or a handful of other dishes. Side dishes tend to be pickled vegetables, or ingredients cooked in broth.

Seafood abounds, due to Japan being a series of islands. It’s often grilled, but raw is highly popular - sashimi or in sushi. And since most of Japan has a rigorous winter, ingredients are seasonal, and there’s a big emphasis on freshness.

It’s hardly complicated, even when you factor in what seems to be the strangest set of national opposites ever: Japan is both the most traditional country in the world and the most modern. The cuisine reflects this, and it’s become a mix of centuries-old dishes and ancient cooking methods, combined with western ingredients and eye-popping surprises. Don't be surprised if the cook uses a typical sashimi recipe then tops it with cream cheese before lightly toasting with a blowtorch!

Drinks to go with the food? These are a lot more familiar. You don’t need to be a wine buff and worry about pairings – wine is still second to beer. Beer is the staple, a Japanese love-affair, with popular breweries exporting the world over – then there’s sake, ditto for exporting.

Japan is less mysterious than many people make it out to be. Across the board, the accent is on simplicity, and that certainly applies to the food, which over the last few decades has become increasingly in vogue throughout the world, including Thailand.

Here on Samui, Japanese food used to be a rarity. That’s all changed, and more and more places offer typical Japanese delicacies on the island. Where to go? Here’s a current list of great restaurants on the island.

At Central Festival, on the ground floor you'll find Tai by Red Snapper, which has a patio that looks onto the busy beach road outside. Food choices are very wide-ranging at Tai, and you can also find gluten free and vegetarian dishes. The restaurant is well known for its sushi, barbecue food and an irrepressible tom yum soup, if you'd like Thai. It directly faces popular Zen Sushi & Sake which boasts a chic contemporary setting and lavish menu, including as, the restaurant name suggests, all manner of sake drinks.

Upstairs at you'll find Yayoi, with Ryuichi Sakamoto music and a few yuzen patterns on the walls – it’s entirely pleasant and laid-back. Check out the specials, with some of the cheapest prices around. And if you like things spicy, there are a few fusion dishes.

Popular chain restaurant, Fuji, at Tesco-lotus in Chaweng, serves a medley of Japanese dishes in an air-con dining room (you may need to dress warmly) and is a hangout for shoppers and business people alike. Just south of Tesco-Lotus, you'll find newcomer Mr. Toki at the traffic lights on the ring-road. Mr. Toki specializes in Japanese-Thai fusion, and has an interesting selection that melds both with pizzazz.

Continue south along the ring-road and you'll come to Musashi Ramen and Sushi Bar (behind Buffalo Steak & Wine) which offers an array of Japanese delights including nabe, Japan’s answer to one-pot comfort food – always easy and delightful to eat, yet rarer to find in Japanese restaurants in Samui.

Ageha Sushi opposite Tesco-Lotus in Lamai has two Japanese chefs serving authentic dishes ib an elegant interior. Try their sushi, sashimi and ramen for sheer deliciousness. Russian-speaking guests appreciate there being a Russian waitress on hand to solve any communication problems.

Kobori Japanese Restaurant in Maenam, just down from the traffic lights, offers popular Japanese dishes and seems to be a hit with the island’s foreign residents. Eat inside and admire Hokusai prints, Japanese calligraphy and the antics of the chef who may just appear in full samurai armour. Feel free to dress up in Japanese traditional clothing – the restaurant boasts a large stock! Popular Kobori has now opened a second branch on the seafront in Nathon.

For a sophisticated beachside setting, head for Namu at W Retreat. The setting is as contemporary and as minimalistic as things can get, and the food’s got a cachet for excellence. Take a seat at one of the tables in the dining room, or do as the Japanese do and eat at the bar. Why? Because then you get to see the chefs at work. Watch while they prepare your dishes. It’s quite an experience and you'll see for yourself how fresh everything is. The chefs’ hands and the deft way they move seem reminiscent of magicians’ – yet there's no fakery here. These are mostly very old and authentic dishes, though with a good few modern touches. The magic comes when you put the food in your mouth.

If you've never eaten Japanese before, give it a try on Samui, and you'll be won over by tastes that are all to do with health, flavour and freshness. And no need to verse yourself in elaborate etiquette either – simply take a seat and enjoy, like the Japanese do.


Dimitri Waring


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