Three Questions for Shalom Japan’s Aaron Israel

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February 1, 2017

Three Questions for Shalom Japan’s Aaron Israel

Our February 3 Taste of Shabbat will feature Shalom Japan, a Jewish Japanese fusion restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, led by chefs (and married couple) Aaron Israel and Sawako Okochi.

Raised in Great Neck, New York, Aaron has worked with some of the most acclaimed chefs in New York City at restaurants including August and A Voce. In 2013 he and Sawako opened Shalom Japan to rave reviews, including one reporter’s impression of its sake kasu challah — a braided loaf made with sake yeast, with sake-infused raisins — as “the best challah this Jew has ever eaten in Brooklyn.”

Here, Aaron talks to us about one of the dishes we’ll be serving at Taste of Shabbat, why there’s no such thing as Jewish cuisine, and the kooky restaurant that inspired Shalom Japan. See you soon at Taste of Shabbat!

Tell us about Lox Oshizushi, one of the appetizers that will be served at Taste of Shabbat.

It’s a more convenient, hand-held version of the lox bowl we serve at the restaurant, which puts lox — obviously very popular in Jewish food — in a traditional Japanese setting, over rice. This is Kyoto-style sushi, which uses cured or cooked fish. This dish consists of cured lox, sushi rice, avocado, cucumber, cilantro, fried capers, and our signature “crack” sauce — Japanese mayonnaise laced with siracha.

Jewish food is such a broad area. How would you describe it?

There’s really no such thing as Jewish cuisine. What interests me is how adaptable Jewish food is: Jewish cooking has absorbed various aspects of different cuisines around the world. For instance, a matzah ball is a Jewish adaptation of a German thing, a kneidlach. Same thing with corned beef or a knish, which is an adaptation of a Romanian thing, or a gefilte fish, which is a take on a Hungarian or Eastern European dish.

We like to find something that’s very familiar that people can experience in new ways. For example, we serve a version of matzah ball soup — a particular love of mine — with gyoza (Japanese dumplings), ramen noodles, roasted chicken, and homemade mandels. [A mandel is kind of like an oyster cracker.]

How did Shalom Japan come about?

When Sawako and I were dating we spent a lot of time introducing each other to our respective cultures and cooking for each other. We started incorporating things from both backgrounds and looking at similarities and differences. For instance, lox is prevalent in Jewish foods. And in Japan, it’s not uncommon to eat cured salmon in the morning with breakfast.

One summer we were at the Brooklyn Public Library doing research for some cooking events and we came across a New York City guidebook from 1983 that had a walking tour of the city. The tour highlighted a place called Shalom Japan, a restaurant in Soho that served sushi and matzah ball soup, that was also a nightclub, with jokes and stand-up comedy. It sounded very kooky. We thought it was hilarious! It was years before we opened the restaurant, but it got us thinking about it.