Bringing a taste of Japan to Phnom Penh has been one man’s mission. Marissa Carruthers and photographer Conor Wall meet chef Tatsuya Hasebe at Ninja.

Cooking Japanese cuisine halfway across the world in the United States proved a new experience for Ninja’s head chef and manager Tatsuya Hasebe. But it’s a skill that has proved handy since he began working at one of Japan’s most popular food chains, which recently opened its first Southeast Asian branch in Phnom Penh.

Sitting inside Ninja on Street 278, the 28-year-old refers to a page on the restaurant’s menu. “I didn’t know what any of these were until I went to America to study,” he says, pointing to a series of sushi rolls that most Westerners would associate with Japanese dining.

California rolls have been adapted to cater for the West, he explains, where some diners prefer not to see the nori (seaweed) on the outside of the roll. “That was strange for me,” Hasebe says. “I didn’t think people in the US would like eating raw fish, yet they had created their own version.”

Hasebe has dedicated much of his life to cookery. At the tender age of 16 he started working in a bento box restaurant to supplement his studies. After two years, he moved to the US to attend San Francisco State University, where he also spent eight years training under a Japanese sushi chef.

He moved back to Tokyo two years ago and was quickly snapped up by Ninja to head one of its flagship stores. With the chain now boasting 90 branches across Japan and two in Australia, Hasebe landed in Cambodia in April to launch the restaurant’s regional debut.

Opened in June, the eatery has proved a hit with the burgeoning Japanese expat community — one of the business’s main reasons for targeting the Kingdom — as well as other nationalities keen to sample the crisp, clean flavours of Japanese cookery.

Complementing the popular salmon sashimi ($4), other traditional dishes on Ninja’s menu include ramen ($6.50) — a soup made from Chinese-style wheat noodles served with pork, seaweed, onions and kamaboko. Its popular udon dish ($4.50) consists of thick wheat-flour noodles in a hot soup. Various meats and vegetables can be added to the mild broth, made from soy sauce, dashi stock and mirin — a sweet rice wine.

The eatery also serves stir-fried dishes such as okonomiyaki ($4.50), a thick but fluffy egg and wheat pancake with cabbage.

But perhaps a bento box (from $7 to $9) is the best way to explore Japanese cuisine, from juicy chicken teriyaki to chunks of deep-fried tofu and herb-infused pan-fried chicken gyoza dumplings. Ninja also boasts an impressive selection of sake bottles, ranging from $40 to $95 (glasses $3.50/$5.50), to wash down your meal.

“Japanese food is very sensitive,” Hasebe explains. “It’s not very spicy; it’s simple, fresh and instant.”

14b Street 278, Phnom Penh.
Tel. 088 861 7623.
Open daily from 11.30am to 2pm, and from 5pm to 12am.