Jun Yoshida has long needed no introduction. His name, Japanese like his father, has become a Sofia emblem of soulful devotion to good food. After spoiling us with delicious table service at his restaurant The Happy Pig for a few years, he and his better half Rene continued to share their playful home recipes online at FunKooks, and in the meantime, they've also found bigger chicken to fry at their excellent Pop-Up Chicken on Shishman Street. We caught him between his regular tasks and errands – making a shopping list, designing new recipes, marinating, chopping, prepping, playing basketball, and laughing with Rene – and asked him to enlighten us about what a Japanese man ate at home in Sofia during the Socialist era, whether soy sauce gets being poured on everything in Asia, and what he finds lame about Bulgarian sushi.
What are your earliest food memories?
My grandmother making fritters, spicy meatballs (yes, true), French fries and the best stuffed grape leaves, papa (my dad) cooking curry, and my mom – tonkatsu and all sorts of other homemade things.
When did you realize that this would be your profession?
Pretty late. I have a degree (almost) in something different altogether. I was 26-27.
Was there a Japanese element in the food you ate at home when you were a child?
Yes, it was 50/50. Maybe even more.
Were you able to find ingredients for Asian cuisine back then, or were the recipes adapted to local ingredients?
I grew up deep in the socialist area. You couldn’t find anything. Shipments would arrive from Düsseldorf, which has the largest Japanese diaspora in Europe. Twice a year there were also containers arriving from Japan. My father was born during World War II, and he would stock up on products as if preparing for a nuclear war.
What are some specific products that you think are still missing or too complicated to procure?
You can find almost everything. Well, fresh herbs like shiso or thai basil are hard to come by, and others are not available at all. Really fresh ginger, fresh wasabi, fresh kaffir lime and galangal are not available, but otherwise there is more and more to choose from.
What are some common mistakes when it comes to East Asian cuisine?
Putting everything in the same category. You need in-depth knowledge of a cuisine before you can experiment with it.
What's the most Japanese dish in your opinion?
Sushi is the most familiar. But there are many others: tempura, kare raisu, tonkatsu, yakisoba...
Is sushi prepared properly in Bulgaria and what’s the biggest mistake local sushi chefs make?
Well, 90% of sushi is the rice, and most places don’t cook it properly.
What are the most annoying generalizations about Eastern cuisines?
Any type of generalization annoys me. I cringe whenever I see the phrase "Asian sauce." What does that even mean? Korean, Thai, Indian? It's almost always something with soy sauce or sweet chili. It’s awful.
When you want to make something quick and easy that transports you to the Far East, your first thought is...?
Kare Raisu. Japanese curry with rice.
What are your favorite places in Sofia for authentic versions of recipes from the Far East?
Miyabi, Thai Box, Chef Viet, Sen Viet, Yun.
What aspects of East Asian street food culture are still missing from street food in our country?
Generally speaking, that’s where street food comes from. We don’t have that here yet.
What are some food rituals we should learn?
In Japan specifically, you always give thanks before you start eating and after finishing the meal. You should never (and this is true throughout Asia) stick your chopsticks in your rice, noodles, etc. It is always the elder who pours a drink for the younger person. If you are out with friends, you pour drinks for each other. And please don't add soy sauce to white rice.
For more food and good food ideas from June and Rene Yoshida, visit @FunKooks and Pop-Up Chicken.