Catriona Thomson talks family, careers and comfort food with Kaori Simpson of multi-award-winning Japanese restaurant Harajuku Kitchen.

Kaori Simpson is passionate about sharing her brand of Japanese cooking with a Scottish audience, even recently converting the entire Scottish Rugby team, ‘they all love Japanese food’ she says proudly. 

A keen champion of sustainability, and a member of the slow food alliance, she is keen to highlight good food being on the national agenda. In addition, telling us that wherever possible the restaurant uses seasonal produce. 

Also partnering with the local Cyrenians charity to grow, locally as much as possible for the restaurant including shiso, and mizuna and hopefully this year wasabi.

Green thinking is also applied to the ethical sourcing of fish, with Scottish mackerel and Guy Grieves hand-dived (Isle of Mull) scallops appearing alongside yellowfin tuna instead of the endangered bluefin found on the menu. 

Kaori said: “Scotland has the best beef in the world, so use that, instead of imported wagyu, which comes with mileage and CO2 emissions.”

The restaurant itself is named after a trendy area in Tokyo which is well known for its street art and fashion and aims to provides a relaxed place in Edinburgh to eat authentic Japanese home-style comfort food.

It has a relaxed vibe with cool wall murals, where everyone is made to feel welcome. Kaori loves to showcase a range of food, anything from her award-winning aubergine curry, agedashi tofu, yakisoba noodles to more traditional sashimi and nigiri.

Sashimi Picture: Harajuku Kitchen

Meet the family & ancestors

Kaori has a fascinating family history, telling us her mum’s family came from South-West Japan, while her dad’s hailed from Hokkaido in northern Japan, adding that the pair met in Tokyo in the 60s.

She said: “Post-war Tokyo was an amazing place, the fast pace of change, economically socially and culturally, it was astounding.

“Oh my gosh, it was so fun with notorious clubs open like Copacobana.”

Kaori adds: “My mum modelled and even won Miss West Japan when she was 18, but she couldn’t afford to make the final. She was the daughter of a traditional riverboat maker, and her grandparents ran a traditional restaurant in Fukuoka.”

On a yoga retreat recently Kaori was described by a guru as being surrounded by serious warriors, something she explains as probably just some of her ancestors.

“My grandfather was one of the last of the samurai, he retired when the whole system was disbanded.”

As a child, Kaori’s mother lived in Fukuoka with them, recuperating from tuberculosis. It was here she learnt traditional cooking methods before going on to work in a famous restaurant in Osaka and then moving to Tokyo. 

Kaori said: “My grandmother also came from a military family, she was even made to learn kendo instead of the more traditionally female pursuit of Ikebana (flower arranging).

“Some of my recipes were handed down from them.’

Life lessons

Kaori was born in Hong Kong, but aged seven, her father move them to the Philippines, as he became a Tuna and So Bonita fish trader. Her father’s family were involved with shipping, and selling parts for boats.

“I lived with my mum and two sisters in Manila while he worked out of Cebu, an island in the South even converting to Islam to avoid attacks on our boats by pirates.”

Living in the capital her entrepreneurial mother saw an opportunity to open the first formal Japanese restaurant, called Tsuji Toyo serving the large ex-pat community.

It was “very traditional in style”, with three sushi chefs, huge teppanyaki and tempura sections and they even imported Wagyu beef steaks from Japan.

“My mum said I grew up eating leftovers from the kitchen at 13, I was dishwashing and waiting, not to earn money but it was the only way to see my mum. My sisters were happy to stay home with their aya or nanny.

“I was the one always in the restaurant, eating and tasting food in the kitchen.”

Sadly her father died of lung cancer when she was just 14, so she had to help more with the restaurant, by 16 she was learning from watching the top Japanese chefs they hired.

After studying at international school Kaori went on to complete a business management course to run staff canteens in the family businesses. At that time there was an explosion of Japanese companies in Manila.

She also worked part-time as assistant director for Japanese TV ASAHIi, where once again her mum’s cooking came to the rescue.

It helped her win a world exclusive scoop with a notorious criminal in prison, he agreed to an interview after Kaori brought him some of her mum’s sushi.

Kaori tells us that after four years of “covering big international events like the ASEAN Summit”, she really wanted to work in peace negotiations.

Deciding it was the right time to leave the businesses and follow her dreams, she studied international relations and politics at the University of Plymouth.

This is where she met her husband Keith Simpson, a Scot from Carnoustie. 

Home cooking

After working and volunteering for charities for a few years, she decided to revisit to her restaurant past and enrolled on a three-year cookery course at Jewel & Esk College.

Primarily to learn western culinary skills and how to cook everything from scratch, bouillabaisse to butchery and traditional Scottish recipes like Cullen skink and haggis and neeps.

During college, she went to work as a student apprentice with Tom Kitchin on the cold section at The Kitchin.

“I don’t think he would remember me, I’m still friends with a lot of the chefs from back then, but working in a Michelin starred kitchen, appealed to my Japanese attention to detail and exactness, it felt safe to me and normal.”

Next, she worked and trained alongside the head chef at the Japanese consulate in Edinburgh, stepping into his shoes when he left and is still delighted to be involved catering for them.

However, as Kaori explains: “All the time my friends craved my authentic dishes from home so we tested my street food at Stockbridge Market, making gyoza.

“Ten years later we still have a stall, then we opened the restaurant six years ago.”

Since then she has won a host of accolades including Best Restaurant in Scotland at the Golden Chopsticks Awards 2019, judged by Gok Wan and Ken Hom and a coveted AA Rosette for Culinary Excellence.

We ask what her restauranteur mother thinks of her award-winning achievements.

“If she is proud she doesn’t say it, mum is strict always saying try to do better, work harder. You know typical Asian mum.'”

Pork Gyoza dumplings

Make the minced filling by mixing quality Scottish free-range pork, together with copious amounts of nira, or garlic chives and shredded Chinese cabbage, blend until smooth.
Kaori uses pre-made gyoza wrappers, which are robust paper-thin circles that encase the dumplings.
These are made from wheat flour, water and cornstarch and a bit of egg.

Kaori then places it on the palm of her hand, carefully spooning just the right amount of pork mixture into the centre of the disc, moistening the edges with lukewarm water all the way around, with her finger.

Then she deftly folds it in half, before adding four or five origami-style creases, which hold the tiny food package tightly together. Then repeat the process.

Kaori explains that she and her staff are quite adept at making these now, as they have to make around 9000 every week for her stall in the Stockbridge market.

She states that nine seconds is the fastest they can make one.

“I enjoy making them, it’s almost meditative and relaxing and you get to chat, it takes four people two days. I used to do it all myself.”

Once the six origami food parcels are complete we head to the cooking kitchen and place them in a shallow pan with a little water.
The potstickers, as they are also known, then bubble away intensely on high heat, steaming away hidden under a lid until most of the water is absorbed.

Halfway through cooking add a dash of rape oil to the pan, to crisp the bottom.

When cooked, the bases  of the gyoza are a beautiful golden brown. They are then artistically arranged on a small plate and a few stems of cress added for decoration.
Then we make a dipping sauce of rice wine vinegar and soy sauce in equal measure, with chilli added to taste.

Finished dish of perfectly presented pork gyoza

Refute-Don

Sometimes the simple things are the best, Kaori explains that her recipe, is basically pork belly diced into chunks and cooked for 6 hours.
The meat is popped into the pot and abandoned, on a really low heat to tease out the intense flavours from the meat. Just a bit of soy sauce, saki and water to cover, and time alone is the magic ingredient.

Now for some perfect fluffed up rice. Kaori uses Japanese short-grained rice, in the proportions one cup to one and a quarter cups water which cooks for twenty-five minutes, over a low heat it is stirred five minutes from the end of the cooking time.

Kaori Simpson in Harajuku Kitchen, Edinburgh

The cooked rice is then added to the bowl and decorated with a tidy pile of spring onion rounds, plus two types of vinegar preserved ginger, one pale and one red.
In another corner, a stack of thinly sliced cucumber sticks are carefully stacked.
The centre of the dish is decorated with a heap of slender cress stems. Kaori then uses chopsticks to transfer the meat chunks from the pot to the bowl, dowsing the meat in some of the cooking liquor.
This then sinks to the bottom of the bowl and is soaked up by the rice. A final flourish of toasted sesame seeds to add crunch and this colourful dish is ready for tasting.

 

The verdict, no wonder the gyoza are so popular at Stockbridge market, definitely moreish and packed full of flavour. Each parcel crisp and soft and delicious and I can’t get enough of the dipping sauce.

The Refute-Don is a triumph, each mouthful has a wealth of texture and meat flavour, accompanied by the fluffy rice. Using chopsticks means I have to slow down my eating, and savour every grain of rice, that I chase around the bowl. The green provides contrast and colour, whilst the gingers add heat to the sensational, soy and sake stock.

• READ MORE: Edinburgh’s Harajuku Kitchen crowned best in Scotland at Golden Chopsticks Awards

Under the grill: Quick Q & A with Kaori

Describe your cooking style? and why are you passionate about it? Traditional, French-inspired fusion etc.

“Authentic Japanese comfort food, inspired by my mother’s restaurant which was traditional ‘Kappo’ style (formal and seasonal). Although, I combine my love of everyday Japanese dishes using delicious seasonal produce in an informal setting.

“My father was a tuna trader, so I learnt from an early age the importance of fresh ingredients.

“I began working in my mum’s restaurant so this is where my passion for food and cooking began, seeing people enjoy my food gives me so much passion and drive.”

What was your first job in the industry? Plus where were you before?

“I began working in my mum’s restaurant at the age of 12, washing dishes. When I got older, I was promoted to chef. I eventually mastered all her recipes and dishes, which were passed down from her great grandfather.”

“When I moved to Edinburgh, I started off as a junior chef at The Kitchin. After that, I took up a role as the sous chef to the Consulate General of Japan and eventually became the resident chef. Since leaving and starting my own business, they have asked me to become the official caterer!”

Favourite spice? And what dish/recipe would you suggest using it in? ? 

“I like to cook North African food, so Cardamom is my favourite non-Japanese spice.

“My favourite Japanese spice is yuzu kosho (Japanese citrus with green chilli), I use it for my yakitori chicken wings.

Are you sweet or sour? So is it all peace and harmony in your kitchen or do the pots and pans fly? What little things annoy you?

“Nobody shouts in my kitchen, I make sure we don’t do that, food portion inconsistency is my bugbear, I am a stickler for presentation and like the dishes to be presented well.

“My kitchen is organised chaos but my kitchen tops and sinks are always clean and pristine.”

What is popular in your kitchen right now? 

“Dark soy with chilli and garlic.”

Tea or Coffee? Is it Darjeeling darling or bitter Colombian? What’s your brew and how you like to drink it? Camomile, Milky brew or builders elaborate, please?

“Oh that’s a hard one. I tend to drink more coffee, I have two favourite coffee blends: Guatemalan and Indonesian Java.

“I filter my coffee, then blitz it with my Vitamix blender with a tablespoon of coconut oil. It’s like a vegan frappe chino!”

Everyone has one at least one guilty food pleasure, so what do you love but are too embarrassed to admit?

“I love Chicharrón (pork cracklings from Guatemala) dipped in vinegar with sea salt and chilli, honestly it’s delicious”

Who is your favourite chef? Plus everyone has a food hero/ local supplier, who is yours and why? 

“My top chef is Simon Hopkinson – I love his take on traditional British food, but my local food hero is Guy Grieves who hand dives scallops on the west coast, we love serving the freshest Scottish Scallops as sashimi.”

Fantasy dinner party guests? and what would you cook for them?

“I’d like to cook for Yoshiki, from the rock band X Japan, he’s really quirky and talented, not to mention he loves champagne.

“I would probably cook this meal with some French flair,  perhaps serving Sea urchin with dashi jelly, grilled oysters Rockefeller and a nice tarte Tatin.”

I don’t like…or I’d rather not eat……

“Pork Pies.”

Harajuku Kitchen

 

10 Gillespie Place,
Edinburgh EH10 4HS

(0131 281 0526)

Edinburgh’s Harajuku Kitchen awarded AA Rosette

Harajuku Kitchen, Edinburgh, restaurant review


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About The Author

Catriona Thomson

Catriona picture edits The Scotsman magazine and Scotland On Sunday, aswell as reviewing restaurants for Scotland on Sunday and writing for Scotsman Food and Drink.

Let us know what you think

comments