Noka has all the familiar fixings of a Japanese restaurant. It boasts a sushi bar, from where it displays luscious chunks of salmon and tuna. The day’s best produce is presented elegantly as a six-course omakase dining experience.
But while most Japanese restaurants often pride themselves for importing most — if not all — ingredients from Japan, Noka is looking to local farmers instead. Like its sister restaurant, Open Farm Community, Noka is hoping to express the same ambitious philosophy of using local ingredients over to Japanese cuisine.
Perched on the rooftop of the new Funan mall, the restaurant comes together with a 5,000 sq-ft urban farm growing micro-herbs and vegetables. The actual harvesting doesn’t all happen up there. A sufficient amount of vegetables and herbs has to be carted over from Edible Garden City for restaurant operations.
It still procures many of its ingredients — rice, fish and snow-aged Wagyu — from Japan, but chef Seki Takuma is taking baby steps weaving in local produce to the menu such as ‘sashimi-grade’ blue prawns from Apollo Marine Seafood and kampong chicken.
“There are a lot of Japanese restaurants here already, and they are all quite similar,’ says Takuma. “That’s not exciting to me. When we combine all Japanese and local ingredients, we create something different in Singapore.”
A labour of love
Takuma, a native of Niigata Prefecture, is a proponent of produce from his homeland. Koshihikari rice is used primarily for sushi and Niigata sake is the highlight of the drink list at Noka. Working with Japanese ingredients has been a significant part of his career as a chef. In Singapore, Takuma has taken on roles at the now-shuttered Hide Yamamoto in MBS, Ikyu and Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa.
But his latest stint at Noka is set to be a lot more challenging. Besides being in the kitchen and figuring his way with local ingredients, Takuma is also experimenting in the farms.
Singapore’s tropical weather isn’t doing him any favours and some tinkerings are required. Thanks to climate-control chambers, Takuma managed to successfully grow shiso leaves and other temperate herbs. A couple of fish tanks nearby provide the nitrates necessary for sprouting Okinawan spinach, which he serves alongside snow-aged Wagyu sirloin.
There has been a couple of misses. Japanese eggplant is not looking to be a feasible project here, so that’s off the list. Okra, bottle gourds and other plants around the urban farm have yet to flower. Only time will tell if it works out.
But while he waits, Takuma is on to more adventurous undertakings. Sashimi-grade prawns from Apollo Marine Seafood has been a hopeful indication of growing quality seafood in Singapore. He’s looking to rear the sashimi-grade blue prawns on the rooftop garden. ‘“It takes time, it’s too difficult. “The prawns are so sensitive, like me,” he chuckles.
Saba mackerel is next up on his wishlist. Takuma is planning a collaboration with Sabar, an eatery in Japan Food Town, to start bringing in livestock to a local farm. That will take about a year to plan out.
A Japanese expression
When it comes down to comparing local and Japanese produce, taste is the ultimate qualifier. So far, the locally-grown Okinawan spinach, oyster mushrooms and shiso leaves have gotten Takuma’s approval. The sashimi-grade prawns, which Lifestyle Asia has tried at an earlier media preview, is not as sweet as its Japanese compatriots but is worthy of praise for its meaty texture.
Still, Takuma executes all ingredients with the same flair. The first ‘sashimi-grade’ blue prawns, farmed by Apollo Marine Seafood, will be presented raw as nigiri with quality sushi rice from Niigata. Organic tempura from Quan Fa Farms is prepared as tempura. Local barramundi is the highlight of another entree, steamed and served with Asari clams and ikura.
Whatever else he can’t find around in Singapore, Takuma brings in from Japan.
“80% of the fish we use here are imported from Japan, but I do want to reduce,” he says. “I want to try using local produce even for sushi and sashimi. This is our plan, being sustainable. The taste will be different, but we have to improve and try.”
Sustainability is key in Noka’s culinary message and Takuma has lofty goals: using 100% local produce in time.
“I don’t know how long that is going to take, but that’s the aim,” he adds. “I just want to make people happy, then save the world.”