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CODE meets Shuko Oda, Koya

Published 19 August 2020

Shuko Oda launched Japanese udon noodle restaurant Koya ten years ago, at a time when – with the exception of sushi – there weren’t many Japanese restaurants in London. It has since become a favourite in the capital, and here we hear from Oda about the inspiration behind Koya, her favourite on the menu, what she first learnt to cook and much more.

For those who haven’t visited, how would you describe Koya in a couple of sentences? 

Koya is a Japanese udon noodle restaurant. We opened its doors 10 years ago in Soho and have been serving freshly made udon and dashi along with seasonal blackboard specials that regulars come back for, ever since then. 

What is the inspiration behind Koya? 

When we started to think about setting up Koya, we wanted to create a restaurant that specialised in one particular Japanese cuisine. In Tokyo this is very common – there’ll be a restaurant for each type of cuisine, whereas here a single restaurant might cover a variety of types of food which often meant that the quality wasn’t great and the udon or soba noodles wouldn’t be hand-made. We wanted to show London diners that’s not how it is in Japan. When you specialise in one thing and make it fresh every day, the result is something that’s very consistent, delicious and really adaptable as well. 

The techniques and flavours I use are definitely inspired by my mother and grandmother’s cooking –  but some of the things that go with them aren’t, just because we’re in London and we can have much more fun. We do have some classics on the menu, of course, but we have some things that are unique to us in London – like the udon noodle English breakfast with egg, bacon and shiitake. 

If you had to pick a favourite from the menu, what would it be? 

Candied mackerel Onigiri (rice balls) that we serve at breakfast with pickled plum and miso soup. 

What was the biggest challenge when it comes to reopening? 

For me it was getting my head around all the technology involved in starting delivery and click and collect! And also getting the containers right for our type of food (hot clear soup!) and making sure it’s compostable or recyclable, has been quite challenging too!  

Was the Eat Out To Help Out scheme beneficial for Koya? 

It was extremely successful with us on both sites – we were not expecting it to have such a big response. We ran out of some dishes!  

What was the biggest lesson you learnt during lockdown? 

Hope for the best and plan for the worst. Also to keep doing what you do well and can, such as providing recipes for charities and cooking properly for my family (basically spend more than 10 minutes cooking for them!) has kept me going. 

What was your go-to meal to make during lockdown? 

Lettuce wrap, usually with rice, minced pork miso, lots of herbs, glass noodles dressed in garlicky sesame oil with a touch of rice vinegar, various vegetables from cucumber to lightly seared kabu turnip, dried chili relish or kimchi, mayo, and any garnish I can find in my fridge and garden. Something for everyone and a great way to get some vegetables in your kids’ tummies!  

What did you first learn to cook? 

Miso soup. 

You’ve moved between London, Tokyo and LA. Has your experience of different cultures and cuisines helped you during your career?  

Yes, I feel I appreciate the cultures in a slightly different way, especially Japanese. I find myself thinking of what it means to be Japanese, what makes certain dishes Japanese or not, probably as a result of growing up outside of Japan, so I often longed for the culture as well as having faced more differences.  

What’s your favourite place for hospitality in the world?  

En Boca is a pizza restaurant in Japan – they have a few branches now, but originally started out in a beautiful wooden house in Karuizawa (Nagano prefecture) in the Shinshu mountains, surrounded by trees and their vegetable garden they would cook from. They had a small but extremely attractive presence, serving honest, simple food, cooked in their pizza oven. Their hospitality and food was warm, produce-led and full of love; the best way of cooking that touches people. 

What advice do you have for those who want to start their own restaurant? 

Less is more. And don’t forget to always take a moment to THINK. 

And what has been the best piece of advice you have received during your career? 

Never let the dashi boil! 

Finally, what’s next for you and Koya? 

We’d love to open a site in a more residential area of London – maybe east.  

To find out more about Koya, visit the website here

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