Raw recruit Yoshimi puts taste of Japan on the menu

Yoshimi Hayakawa making sushi rice in a sushi oke (wooden bowl). “It’s simple, but there’s a lot of work. New chefs here are surprised that we do preparation for the preparation,” says Yoshimi of the process involved in setting up the kitchen every day. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.
Yoshimi Hayakawa making sushi rice in a sushi oke (wooden bowl). “It’s simple, but there’s a lot of work. New chefs here are surprised that we do preparation for the preparation,” says Yoshimi of the process involved in setting up the kitchen every day. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.

Lifestyle –  Judy Murphy talks to a woman who came to Galway to learn English and introduced the city to delights of sushi

The omens weren’t good when Yoshimi Hayakawa arrived in Ireland from Japan in 2001, having come here to study English. Her ultimate destination was Galway but she flew in to Dublin, unaware that on the day she landed, a major soccer match was taking place.

Not having pre-booked accommodation, Yoshimi couldn’t find a bed. Initially, she stayed in the bus station and, when it closed, she spent hours wandering the streets with her backpack, looking for a hostel and encountering lots of drunken Irish people.

Once she’d lived here for a while, Yoshimi realised drunken Irish people were no threat, but coming from Japan, where public drunkenness is not the norm, she was terrified.

“I decided I’d leave soon,” she recalls with a laugh. But she didn’t.

Fifteen years on, Yoshimi has become part of the fabric of Galway City, where she runs the popular Wa Café restaurant on New Dock Street. It specialises in the food of her native country mostly using ingredients from Galway. And, having introduced Irish diners to the delights of Japanese dishes, Yoshimi has also taken to training Irish chefs in Japan’s specialised method of preparing and cooking food.

Wa Café, near the Docks, is a small, simply decorated space that seats about 20 and also offers a take-out service. A blackboard behind the counter informs customers of the daily sushi specials which are prepared in the kitchen behind.

As we sample an elderflower and ginger cordial prepared by Patrick Philips, one of her Irish chefs, Yoshimi explains that coming to Ireland opened up possibilities that she could never have dreamed of in Japan.

Working with a company that manufactured vinegar and other condiments she sold sushi products to supermarkets, “but never dreamed I would become a sushi chef”.

That certainly wasn’t her intention when she came to Galway.

“I’d planned to travel around Europe. The EU was expanding and the euro had just come in and I wanted to witness it,” she explains. “But before that, I came to Ireland.”

Yoshimi admits now that she didn’t know much about Ireland and could as easily have been going to Iceland!

But when she came to Galway and met people from France, Italy, Spain and other parts of the EU, everything changed.

“I realised I didn’t need to travel, because everybody was here.”

She loved Galway from the beginning.

“After a month, I wanted to open a Japanese restaurant here. I was joking, but only half joking,” she recalls.

Yoshimi was a student at the Galway Language School, staying with a host family. Her host, Barbara McKeown, encouraged her to cook Japanese food and invite her fellow students around for dinner.

These students, who came from all over Europe, loved Yoshimi’s food and the more they sampled it, they more they encouraged her to open her own restaurant.

Yoshimi, who had learned cooking from her mother, was surprised at this – becoming a professional chef in Japan requires many years of training, so it wasn’t something she’d ever considered.

Japanese food was a novelty for many of her friends in the early 2000s, she explains. “Even French people I met hadn’t tasted it.”

So she began to give the idea of a restaurant serious consideration.

In her early days, cooking for friends, she did try out a few authentic recipes, such as monkfish liver, but “it was too adventurous”.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.