Japanese seasonings spicing up the world

Sho Komine / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Neeraj Tyagi cooks a dish using soy sauce at his restaurant in New Delhi in December.

NEW DELHI / TOKYO — Neeraj Tyagi is a big fan of Japanese soy sauce, and uses it in the restaurant he manages in a hotel in New Delhi. But the restaurant is not Japanese, it is Indian, a cuisine he insists is amenable to Japanese seasonings.

Tyagi uses soy sauce to add savoriness to the chicken tikka, in which chicken is marinated in spices and yogurt and baked in an oven, or as a secret ingredient in his curries.

With a worldwide boom in Japanese food, overseas sales channels for soy sauce, wasabi, shichimi pepper and other seasonings are expanding.

While Japanese manufacturers sometimes face import restrictions and other hurdles, they are engaged in a trial-and-error process to increase brand recognition and create a taste preferred in the local market.

According to the Japanese Embassy in India, there were about 40 restaurants serving Japanese food in New Delhi and its surrounding areas in 2017. That number had increased to about 130 through the end of last year.

Yakitori grilled chicken and sushi rolls are popular as an increasing number of people regard them as healthy, Tyagi said.

In the past, India restricted imports of honjozo (traditionally brewed) soy sauce that is distributed in Japan. A soy sauce with a strong viscosity and sweetness was available, but Japanese restaurants complained that they were not suitable for Japanese cuisine.

The Japanese government started requesting in 2018 that the Indian government allow in honjozo soy sauce. The major food manufacturer Kikkoman Corp. held food tasting events in India using Japanese soy sauce for which it received special permission, among other things to promote the soy sauce. As a result, all restrictions on soy sauce imports were lifted in February this year.

In May, Chiba Shoyu Co. plans to start research ahead of setting up local production. Representative Director Kyosuke Iida likes the prospects for India, which produces soybeans suitable for soy sauce.

“A market of 1.3 billion people is very attractive,” he said. “We’re looking at someday having the whole process from brewing to sales done locally.”

Tweaking the taste

As interest in Japanese ingredients and cuisine continues to grow around the world, the export value of seasonings has been also on the rise.

Last year, exports of “sauces,” which include mayonnaise and wasabi paste, increased about 19% from the previous year to ¥43.5 billion, soy sauce increased about 21% to ¥9.1 billion, and miso 15% to ¥4.4 billion.

Aichi Prefecture-based Kinjirushi Co., which includes tubes of wasabi among its export products, took its first step overseas into the United States in 1984.

While continuing to make cold sales calls on restaurants in the United States, the firm discovered that many people were looking for a distinct spiciness, leading it to refine the product to meet the tastes of local markets.

In Europe, where consumers tend toward natural products, Kinjirushi has continued to tweak the taste and additives depending on the country or region, such as refraining from the use of artificial coloring.

Exports now go to about 70 countries, and even the coronavirus pandemic failed to stem growth in sales, according to the firm.

“Even if we change the taste and appearance, it still conveys the essence of wasabi, such as its refreshing aroma and pungency,” the company’s managing director Kazue Okamoto said with a hint of pride.

Emphasis on quality

For companies looking to expand into overseas markets, regulations for individual countries and high costs can be formidable barriers.

Yawataya Isogoro Ltd., a long-established Nagano Prefecture-based manufacturer of the red pepper condiment known as shichimi togarashi, includes hemp seed in its domestic product. Some countries restrict the import of hemp seed, so the firm had to add a step to the manufacturing process to remove them.

Although it requires additional time and effort, the company decided to make a full-scale push of exports about five years ago in anticipation of a shrinking domestic market due to the declining population.

In addition to the shipping costs from Japan, the use of expensive raw materials results in local prices that are four to five times higher than those of other companies.

Exports account for about 1% of the company’s total sales, but because its products have a reputation for high quality, it is continually receiving more and more inquiries.

“Even though the price is high, the response has been good,” managing director Yuki Muroga said. “We want shichimi togarashi to be found on tables around the world.”

Hot export items

Total exports of agricultural, forestry and fishery products and food items topped ¥1.24 trillion last year, reaching a record high for the ninth consecutive year.

The biggest growth in exports was seen in scallops, up about 103% from the previous year to ¥63.9 billion, followed by wagyu and other beef (about 85% to ¥53.7 billion), whiskey (about 70% to ¥46.2 billion) and sake (about 66% to ¥40.2 billion).

By country or region, exports to China were the most at ¥222.4 billion, followed by Hong Kong at ¥219 billion and the United States at ¥168.3 billion.

“In countries where Japanese food is growing popular, providing high-quality products is one aspect of it,” said Tomohisa Ishikawa, senior chief researcher at the Japan Research Institute Ltd. “But if brand awareness is low, it is necessary to have a balanced strategy that conveys the products’ appeal, such as offering a lineup with reasonable prices and quantities.”