I'm sitting in a modest sushi bar near Galway's docks, leafing through Matt Goulding's exploration into Japanese food culture Rice, Noodle, Fish. It's raining and a few food lovers in the know have come to Wa Cafe for some umami-based refuge.
The comfort of a cloudy bowl of Toyota City Ramen (€13.50) soothes my soul with every sip. A lump of butter has melted into the noodles swimming in a chicken and miso-based dashi, oozing over a soft boiled egg, creating a velvety softness and a richness complimented by the plump shiitake mushrooms and salty strands of seaweed.
Reading Goulding’s book, I’m reminded of the many layers there are to Japanese food culture and how little I really know about it, beyond the basics. I ponder this as I dip my sticky orinaki rice balls into a bowl of delicious miso soup. There is a mound of faintly pickled cucumber, cabbage and carrots on the side, completing a trio that makes up a classic food-on-the-go staple (€7.50 for miso, rice balls and pickles). I am most certainly not supposed to dip the rice balls into the miso soup (it could be seen as impolite or, at best, uncouth) but Wa Cafe’s owner and chef, Yoshimi Hayakawa, is no doubt blind to the faux pas of non-Japanese diners after cooking in Galway for more than 15 years.
Back in 2001, Hayakawa moved to Galway to learn English. She started cooking Japanese meals for her host family and classmates, giving them their first taste of sushi. Séamus Sheridan, of Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, sought out this young Japanese woman he heard was making sushi and suggested she sell sushi at the Galway Market on the weekends.
Hayakawa had her stall from 2002, before opening up Galway’s first Japanese restaurant, Kappa-Ya, in 2005 alongside chef Junichi Yoshiyagawa. In 2008, Hayakawa went out on her own with Wa Cafe. “The number eight is a very lucky number in Japan so I opened on the August 8th, 2008,” she tells me.
Hayakawa is kind of like an Irish Sushi chef mammy. She has carefully trained the young chefs who have worked under her in the ways of sushi, encouraging the development of sushi chefs that have gone on to do their own things, such as Conor McNamara of Maki Sushi Rolls in Cork’s English Market (makisushirolls.com).
Her current protégé is Patrick Phillips (@PaddyFilipino on Twitter), a young chef originally from Co Clare who has worked as a commis-chef in Michelin-starred Aniar and as chef de partie in the five-star Glenlo Abbey Hotel. The Japanese Snickers bar (€7), a superb dessert of miso ice cream served with caramel and chocolate sauce alongside a black sesame and peanut crumb, is his creation. “It’s great to work with him,” Hayakama says of Paddy, “because he inspires me with his new approach to Japanese food.”
“Irish fish is beautiful,” she says. “I’m so lucky because really prized fish, like Atlantic tuna, is much cheaper here than in Japan. My supplier Gannet Fishmongers calls me and lets me know when he gets great fish.”
She hopes, as she did with her other protégés, that she can bring Phillips with her to Japan on her next trip to visit her two sushi masters, one in Ishinomaki and one in Osaka, who she trains with whenever she goes back home.
Hayakama is originally from Toyota City, and it’s her hometown that inspires the ramen at Wa Cafe. Apart from the motor industry, Toyota is a big name in miso production, hence the miso dashi. Her recipe for dashi is a closely-guarded secret, and she’s inspired by the taste of home in all of her cooking. “I don’t measure much. I use my palate to write the recipes that teach my chefs. I remember the taste of what my mother and my grandmother made back at home, and I try to recreate it.”