After having had the opportunity to enjoy many home-cooked meals in Japanese households (both in Canada and Japan) this cuisine holds a special place in our hearts. When Japa Bowl first appeared on Broadway we were shivering with anticipation and we weren't disappointed; the food quickly became addicting for us, bringing back fond memories of quiet and humble Okasans (Moms) cooking with love. It certainly helped that the owners - Steve and Jessica (not their ethnic names, obviously) were happy to make sure we felt truly at home during each and every visit. Their genuine affability has made Japa Bowl our "third place" - and we aren't alone. There's usually a number of familiar faces at the tables as this quaint little spot has developed a core group of devout fans. Years later it feels like an extension of our home, familiar smiles and smells immediately warm our hearts as soon as we walk in through the door.
Nestled on Broadway between Main and 10th Streets Japa Bowl offers a window into authentic Japanese cuisine. While sushi and Japanese haute cuisine are readily available in most cities, the comfort foods of everyday Japan are harder to find. The dishes at Japa Bowl focus on the quality and simplicity that defines much of Japan's rich culinary history, with a rustic coziness that promises contentment. There is an unassuming simplicity to home-cooked meals that focus on tasty comfort, on warming your heart as well as filling your belly. No one's out to get awards; it's enough just to make loved ones happy. That makes Japa Bowl a true gem in our eyes.
Their menu offers the basics in terms of beverages with the obligatory sake, soju, biru (beer) and Japanese fruit wines, as well as non-alcoholic choices like green and roasted rice teas. There are also some surprises, like delicious Kohee (Japanese roasted coffee) and truly outstanding fruit and veggie smoothies.
The fare is split into a regular a la carte menu and izakaya-style food - Japanese pub fare intended for sharing. Rice and Ramen bowls take center stage, with a couple of tasty salad options. The menu is a testament to the simplicity and culinary specialization molded by the personal histories of Japa Bowl's owners, Stephen and Jessica.
Steve is a friendly host and eager to share his life experiences and outlook. But he values his privacy and prefers to keep his face off social media and let his dishes, which are lovingly informed and executed by Jessica - speak for themselves. Luckily he was more than happy to sit down and share his history and insights with us.
Having grown up in Hakata to a Japanese father and Korean mother, Stephen recalls the tension between the two cultures, born of a long history of strife and reinforced by World Way Two. During his youth his family moved to Korea where the language was totally unknown to him and where few Koreans could speak a word of Japanese. This was a difficult time to immigrate to Korea; resentment was strong with the memory of Japanese occupation fresh in people's minds. Despite the challenges, Steve grew to love the country and expressed deep gratitude for the opportunity to gain intimate knowledge of these two very complex cultures. He feels a deep connection to both places, "I love both countries, I understand how they think," he tells us.
In Saskatoon, a world removed from the complexities of his dual-identity, Steven has a unique opportunity. While he understands better than most that the two cultures which influenced his entire life exist as separate cultural, historical, and culinary entities, he proudly represents both in his own unique way. For him there is an element of empowerment in being able to understand the differences and nuances of these two cuisines and combine them in a way that is enjoyable and pleasing to the palate.
"Japanese can make Japanese food, Koreans can make Korean food. I'm very proud of knowing both countries food cultures exactly," he explains.
Stephen’s relationship with cuisine began with his father, a businessman and a foodie himself, who took Stephen on dining adventures which helped develop his palate and gave him a love of food that needed to be expressed by sharing it with others. Having traveled throughout Japan and Korea to train his palate and learn by eating his way to understanding, Steven (with a laugh) compares his gastro-education to a martial arts film where the protagonist must summit distant mountain temples to train his Kung-Fu skills.
The flavours and menu items at Japa Bowl reflect both Stephen’s food journey as well as his personal duality, but they are also a result of his wife Jessica’s influence. When he was planning Japa Bowl she asked him what kind of Korean items should be added to the menu. At the time Stephen was leaning towards traditional Japanese fare. However, the rising popularity of spicy food and seasonings was better reflected through Korean flavours. As Stephen explained with a smile, Japanese food lends itself to a sweeter palate "almost all the time." In Japanese culture food is viewed through a lens of simplicity, which allows the natural flavours and textures of each dish to become the focus. In general Japanese philosophy is about stripping away distractions. In the kitchen this forces the chef to work with high-quality, seasonal ingredients that can hold their own - similar in philosophy to Italy's food culture. However, with salty and sweet (the two staple flavours of Japanese taste) falling out of fashion, Steven felt adding carefully thought-out Korean influences to the final expression of his dishes would be more enjoyable for local tastes. Thus, Japa bowl has a menu that fuses Korean heat and seasoning with Japanese mainstays.
Fusing the flavors of these two cultures is not a job for anyone, Steven says: "A famous author in Japan once explained it to me this way: Everyone knows you do not wear white socks with a black suit. If the average person tried this, they would look silly. However, a true fashionista could create such an outfit that would be wonderful. They understand fashion deeply, it is instinct. They know the rules so well, they know how to change and break them to make something wonderful, that others cannot replicate." He feels his deep understanding of the cultures and cuisines of both these countries allows him to expertly combine them in a way that is difficult for others to replicate.
Now he is excited to share his dishes through his very own restaurant, and in true Japanese fashion he has no interest in owning a large establishment. Our travels in Tokyo, Kyoto and Okasa led us past countless places that could seat only a handful of people. One quickly learns that the best restaurants in Japan are segmented by theme - they serve nothing but ramen or focus exclusively on tonkatsu or offer only sushi. We ate ourselves into a coma at a place that had quite the variety of menu items - if you accept that the variety was defined by everything being deep-fried on a skewer. Japanese chefs master their technique and dishes, ensuring diners are never disappointed. True to his culture, Steven made sure Japa Bowl was a small restaurant, allowing him to provide a personal touch. He likes a short menu that allows for the traditional specialized kitchen: in this case, one that focuses on rice and noodle dishes.
He knows that many people are disappointed not to find sushi on the menu. In North America, in cities like Saskatoon, people generally don't appreciate the Japanese penchant for specialization. They want access to all the Japanese big-name items on one menu. In Japan rarely do restaurants offer the wide array of their cuisine in a single location, and when they do they are often looked upon as tourist traps or mediocre. For Stephen, it was important to him to honour this cultural approach to food. His philosophy is simple: "Sushi and ramen should never come out of the same kitchen." Steve knew it was a gamble to keep things thematic with rice and noodles dishes and omit sushi altogether. Sushi is a big money driver, often a slam dunk because of its almost viral popularity.
Fortunately, it was a gamble that paid off with Japa Bowl. Stephen and Jessica are masters of Ramen, an skillful art which requires expertise in the creation of the broth. While Ramen is essentially a fast food in Japan, it also has a culture all its own with a fanatical following that includes Ramen celebrities, museums (note the plural), and even themed video games
Some might be familiar with the famous, underground Japanese movie: Tampopo. The movie is about a widow learning to make the perfect bowl of Ramen but scattered throughout are tongue-in-cheek vignettes (or are they?) focused on Japanese food culture. One of our most beloved scenes is the Ramen master passing on his wisdom to a young man. It is important to note he's a master of eating Ramen, not cooking it:
In Japan there are culinary schools which focus on the cooking of Ramen, one famously putting students through a five-year program. Needless to say, making a bowl of Ramen is no light matter. Some Japanese restaurants never turn off the pot cooking the Ramen broth, letting it bubble 24 hours a day. They continue to add to the broth and let it reduce, carefully adding more ingredients and base as bowls get devoured by customers.
"Some restaurants in business for 100 years, continue to add, add, add to the same pot. Never turning off the burner. Sometimes this is exaggerated, but there are restaurants that emphasise this," Steven explain with a mixed air of gravity and amusement. Steven and Jessica's Ramen broths take three days to create. He takes pride in refusing to take any economical shortcuts, like MSG, to achieve their broths' signature flavour. To Stephen it is not worth the flavour compromise and the negative health response for diners who do not tolerate MSG. Caring for the customer’s palate and health is an important factor; after all, Steven’s restaurant is also the source of his own meals.
There is also another interesting personal twist to Japa Bowl's approach to Rame. Despite its popularity, he does not create pork bone broth. He finds its richness cloying on the palate and feels he can only create dishes for his customers he himself enjoys. He prefers the simplicity and familiarity of chicken broth which is very common in Western cuisine and familiar to those new to Japanese cuisine. "Chicken broth is more and more popular in Japan as well," he notes. He pridefully points out that an entire chicken goes into the production of the base of his chicken ramen broth. He works with closely with Jessica to fuss over their creations, making small changes and adjustments to ingredients and flavours while respecting the tradition and culture behind each dish.
While he always tries to stay true to his roots, Steven is fascinated by the multicultural aspect of Canadian businesses and in the larger Canadian landscape. He finds it great fun and easy to share food with people because of the multicultural input from people who have a special insights and connection to their cultures of origin. Stephen explains that “food is a huge part of the culture, the making of the food is very specific. Pizza and spaghetti, ramen and sushi, these require skills that need to be developed.”