Considering Japan as my current abode, I would never have thought of sampling Japanese dishes in Manila until I stepped into the petit Japanese bistro and sweets haven, Zaan Japanese Tea House at Mother Ignacia corner Don Roces Avenue, Quezon City. The familiarity of a noren (Japanese fabric overhang canopy) hung over the entrance, a shoji sliding door opening to one side with a welcome chime, an elevated tatami-like mat flooring encircling a tea table over a sunken alcove, a beautiful array of Japanese ceramic matcha bowls against the wall, and dark bronze bells on every table—all make the distance between Japan and the rest of the world a little narrower.
Zaan (taken from the Japanese characters of tea and retreat or hermitage) is unique to Manila as being the only authentic Japanese sweets parlor in the city. It found its birthplace in Quezon City from its parents, long-time residents of Japan, Tony and Nanette Fernandez, and their bosom friend of their days in Nagoya, Noriko “Non” Iwamoto. Non, who originally specialized in veterinary medicine and dairy farm management, has made Manila her home for almost five years now. In between translation jobs, she travels around the Philippines extensively on public transport to explore the country’s natural resources. She cheerfully greets you in her impressive Tagalog and the samue (Japanese monk’s work attire) as your curious eyes hover around the Japanese setting quite typical in many old towns in Japan.
Tony: Around 2014, Non popped up the idea to Nanette and myself about putting up a Japanese tea house restaurant in Manila. Non has been making TsokoFino mango and pili chocolates in her small condominium unit in Cubao. As the sales of TsokoFino grew, Non needed a bigger kitchen for making more chocolates and storing them properly. Ideally, it was connected to a small tea house. Non would serve dishes she knew very well. Eventually, she would use her creativity and savvy for injecting the latest trends in her recipes.
Non: I think I always have a heart to help underprivileged Filipinos, a desire which also Tony and Nanette share. In the beginning, I thought that by using more local ingredients produced by Filipino farmers, they would be able to realize a better income. So, I explored the potential of pili nuts and Philippine chocolates [cacao] to support the local farmer, and this resulted in the production of our TsokoFino chocolates. I wanted to pursue my dream for TsokoFino to have its proper and bigger kitchen, and eventually, this “small” vision turned into a tea house restaurant.
Zaan’s repertoire of dishes are concocted carefully from high-quality ingredients sourced both locally and from Japan—from tofu to organic eggs, kuromame black soybeans, miso, kinako soy powder, and mugi barley . Because of this, your choice of katsudon pork cutlet in a rice bowl, squid teriyaki, salmon and bonito flakes onigiri, okonomiyaki or tsukemono pickled vegetables feeds your palate with that authentic Japanese taste.
Non: There are no shortcuts to cooking in the Zaan kitchen. I always emphasize that the order of adding ingredients and the chemistry of food while cooking a dish matter so much to achieve the precise umami [savory taste that combines with the four other basic tastes of sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness] desired by the chef.
Tony: Zaan is a space to experience Japan through the so-called fifth taste associated with Japanese cuisine—umami best demonstrated by Japanese home cooking [which Non knows best as a homemaker and a mother of three]; hearing in the traditional music of the koto [traditional string instrument], shakuhachi flute and shamisen [traditional guitar]; sight—the visual appeal of the tokonoma alcove and austere pieces on display; and space or feeling associated with the tatami room. Our special tea ceremony sessions allure visitors to Zaan to experience the innate dimension of Japanese life and culture. Although Zaan originally intended to serve Filipino customers, now Japanese come as well, longing for that authentic and nostalgic feeling of “home.” The added value of Zaan is in being a resource or meeting point for sharing interests in things Japanese, ranging from language to cosplay [costume dress-up of manga characters and various personalities].
From year to year, Japanese restaurants increasingly emerge in every corner of towns in the Philippines, therefore, challenging Zaan to offer something unique and particular not experienced in other establishments.
Tony: With the rise of franchises of established Japanese restaurants and the increasing travel boom to Japan, it is now feasible for Filipinos to determine the true Japanese taste. The range of dishes have gone beyond tempura or sukiyaki. I think the level of saltiness [and thus, the type or brand of soy sauce] matters. Also, restaurants in Japan are specialized. If you want to eat ramen, you go to a ramen-ya, for udon to udon-ya, for okonomiyaki to okonomiyaki-ya, and so on. You do not go to one place to eat all these; otherwise, you land in family restaurants. The interior and exterior design dictates certain refinements, say closer to the look associated with the samurai culture. This is what Zaan’s design hopes to convey.
An attractive feature of Zaan Japanese Tea House is the space it provides for delivering Japanese culture to its customers, from sushi workshops, tea ceremonies, to casual conversational lounging.
Tony: The raised tatami-like mat platform in the center of the restaurant serves as the niche for a “casual” tea ceremony. The Zaan way focuses on the ideal of the tea ceremony while extending the meaning of the motions [or “protocol” as Non calls it] in the context of present-day personal and business life. The ceremony presents the way to appreciate something deeply traditional Japanese. For the opening in August 2014, a Japanese tea master flew in from Nagoya and conducted the entire ceremony for guests who came from the neighborhood and the building where Zaan is located. UP students, including a couple of Japanese enrolled in an Asian Studies, class were Zaan’s first customers.
Koto concerts with a shakuhachi flute player have also been held at Zaan. The musicians were UP Asian Music students and a Japanese lady professor from Ateneo who started serious koto lessons in Quezon City. A Japanese who does rakugo [Japanese one-man “sit-up” comedy] for a hobby has also performed a couple of times, both in Japanese and Tagalog-English.
The Japanese chitchat nights are held every second and fourth Tuesdays of the month introducing a language topic for daily practical use, enhancing cultural exchange, and understanding of both the Philippine and Japanese cultures.
We also have a three-hour Japanese sushi workshop held almost every two months, usually on Sundays, with Chef Takashi (who owns a restaurant under his own name). It has attracted a variety of sushi-loving people, who take home their own creations. We can also introduce lessons for making Japanese wagashi confectioneries, which is the flag of Zaan.
To the novice of Japanese sweets, Zaan is the place. Stuffed vanilla ice cream with red beans and green tea on the side; shiruko [white mochi balls in sweetened red beans paste]; kakigori shaved ice in chocolate, green tea, red beans, or mango flavors; warabimochi [jelly sweets dipped in kinako toasted soybean powder]; and matcha ice cream and matcha latté are just a sneak preview of what would whet your appetite at Zaan.
Zaan Japanese Tea House
Norfil Foundation Bldg.
16 Mother Ignacia Avenue corner Don Roces Avenue, Quezon City
Tel. (02) 412 8465