I first met Roger Asakil Joya at one of Alex Mossige's Filipino food pop-ups in Stavanger, Norway. He, his wife and their four-year-old son had just finished eating Kare-Kare, a thick oxtail stew in peanut sauce, when Alex suggested I interview him. “He's from Sabi Sushi,” she said.
Sabi Sushi is a well-known chain of sushi restaurants in Stavanger. It grew from one small take-away outlet to nine restaurants within a span of five years. In my family, Saturday is Japanese food day. Every week, we would either dine in at, or order take-out from, the nearest Sabi Sushi restaurant.
“At which Sabi restaurant do you work?” I asked Roger.
Overhearing my question, a Filipina seating at the table cut in, “He's the owner, you dum-dum!” (Well, she didn't say “you dum-dum”, but I surely felt like one :-))
“I'm the one who mops the floor,” Roger replied, eliciting laughter and diffusing the embarrassment caused by my silly question.
Roger and his son. Photo: Jacqueline Lauri
Roger Asakil Joya, originally from Cavite, Philippines, is a sushi master, co-owner and founding partner of Sabi Sushi and the head chef of Sabi Omakase. He immigrated to Norway when he was 18. He is one of the few sushi chefs in Norway accredited by the All Japan Sushi Association (AJSA).
In August 2015, Roger competed at the Sushi World Cup in Tokyo and snatched second place in the Edomae sushi category and fourth overall. As the top three winners were Japanese, Roger, can affably claim the world's best non-Japanese sushi chef title.
Sabi Sushi, conceived as an Everyman's sushi diner, played a big part in converting sceptic raw fish eaters into sushi enthusiasts in Rogaland in southwestern Norway. Ironically, decades ago, it was the Norwegians who tried to convert the Japanese to eat a particular type of fish raw – salmon.
Salmon sushi, now a world favourite, was unheard of in Japan until the Norwegian salmon industry reintroduced it to them. Salmon fished in Japan bred parasites and was considered repulsive to serve raw. It took a clever campaign by a Norwegian to change the Japanese's perception of salmon sushi.
Sabi Sushi's Newbie, a favourite of the author's son. Photo: Jacqueline Lauri
Salmon also played a big role in popularizing sushi worldwide due to the threshold fish's mass appeal. In fact, Sabi Sushi's Newbie, a set my son craves for every week, consists of mostly salmon. As you know, Norwegian salmon has that buttery, melt-in-the-mouth quality and a universally-liked taste that even children love.
Which provides us with some food for thought: What would it take for Filipino food to crossover in Norway and the world? How can we change the negative perception on our cuisine and re-label the “unhealthy” tag slapped on it into “healthy yet exciting?” What's our takeaway from the Norwegian salmon sushi story?
Can Roger Asakil Joya help popularize Filipino food in Norway just as he helped popularize sushi in the region?
What do you think is the reason for the absence or lack of Filipino food establishments in Norway? What can be done to boost the visibility of Filipino cuisine in the mainstream?
Most Filipinos do not have a business mentality. They are more focused on getting a secure job so that they can help their family in the Philippines, which I think is understandable.
In terms of Filipino food, I think we don't have a distinctive or easily identifiable gastronomic style. Most of our food is diluted with European, Chinese, and Malay influences. To give it a boost, I would recreate a native tropical paradise atmosphere, like a restaurant with a nipa hut type of motif inside.
Have you ever thought about starting up a Filipino restaurant? Why or why not?
I'm open to it. If there are Filipinos who can give me a viable proposal and ask me to be their partner, I would seriously consider it.
If an aspiring entrepreneur comes to you and asks you for advice about putting up a Filipino restaurant in Stavanger or anywhere in Norway, what would you say?
Prepare a business plan and I will consider financing it.
What are your goals in the next few years?
Invest in the Philippines. I love our country.