Izakayas: a Japanese tradition in Vancouver

 A small Ikura Tapa, made with salmon eggs.

A small Ikura Tapa, made with salmon eggs.

An izakaya, which translates to “stay” and “sake shop,” is a lively and informal bar that serves Japanese fusion cuisine in tapas style. Izakaya restaurants have been opening at a rapid pace all over the city, claiming a spot in Vancouver’s diverse culinary scene.

Traditional izakayas are vibrant places where customers are welcomed into the restaurant by someone shouting “irasshaimase” (“welcome” in Japanese). Both servers and cooks say it loudly, and with a smile, every time a new customer enters the restaurant.

People can sit at the bar to watch the cooks prepare their food, or at the tables to enjoy the company of a group of friends. In more traditional izakayas, while waiting for the first drink to come, the customer receives an oshibori (wet towel) to clean hands and an otosmi (a little appetizer)before choosing from a variety of small dishes. Although some restaurants in Vancouver try to follow these traditions, others elect to skip these details.

“In Japan, izakayas are a great place to have a drink after work with friends or colleagues, while eating good food,” says Takeshi Hasegawa, the vice president of Kitanoya Guu, the company that pioneered izakayas in Canada.

A slow awakening

Hasegawa, 38, is originally from Nagoya and moved to Vancouver 15 years ago. Kitanoya Guu opened the very first izakaya restaurant in Vancouver in 1993 at a time when it was possible to find only traditional Japanese sushi or classic yakitori (grilled skewered chicken).

“It took almost six years before Vancouverites figured izakayas out. We did not change anything about the original atmosphere and the idea when importing this concept over,” says Hasegawa. “At the beginning people were confused by the tiny portions of the food and the menu itself. They could not find the food that they were expecting from a Japanese restaurant.”

An izakaya might be the perfect place to taste and sample Japanese fusion. It is a place to try starters like miso cream cheese, chopped tuna sashimi garnished with green onion and seaweed, akabocha croquette (pumpkin and boiled egg), or mango cheese cake.

“Tapas are based on our traditional cuisine, but chefs feel free to experiment with new flavours, mixing ingredients and tastes from other international cuisines like Italian, German, Spanish, Korean or Chinese,” says Hasegawa.

Try them out or try your hand at them

Almost 24 years after the first one opened in Vancouver, izakayas have become more popular. Currently, there are more than two dozen izakaya restaurants in Vancouver.

Evidence of their popularity can be seen by viewing the annual Dine Out Vancouver Festival guide. A handful of izakayas are taking part in it, giving Vancouverites multiple venues at which to try Japanese tapas.

For those who wish to not only taste tapas, but to learn how to make izakaya-style tapas, there are courses available at The Nikkei Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby. The centre organizes popular cooking classes with renowned local chefs to introduce people to this traditional food.

On Jan. 31, Chef Clifford Chi, who has worked in Guu restaurants for more than a decade, will host a class that includes a lecture, cooking demonstration and tasting of recipes that combine flavours and ingredients of Japan, Asia and Europe. The class is open to anyone willing to learn.

For more information, please visit centre.nikkeiplace.org and www.dineoutvancouver.com.