Japanese actor-host Mokomichi Hayami: Cooking to woo women

Japanese actor-host Mokomichi Hayami cannot get enough of Singapore food.

On his maiden trip here last month, the 32-year-old went on a whirlwind tour of eateries and a wet market.

He checked out seafood and vegetables at Tekka Centre in Little India, feasted on dishes such as Hokkien mee and chicken rice at Maxwell Food Centre, and sampled Peranakan food including ayam buah keluak (stewed chicken with black Indonesian nut) at a restaurant in Armenian Street.

He also tried his hand at creating chocolate art with home-grown pastry chef Janice Wong.

Pointing to his stomach, the tanned 1.86m-tall hunk exclaims in Japanese through a translator: "I overate as all the dishes were so good and my digestive system became so tired from eating."

There is no sign of a belly, though, in the suave suit-and-tie outfit he wears for this interview.

The floppy-haired heart-throb was in town to film an episode on Singapore food for his popular cooking show, Moco's Kitchen, which airs tomorrow on GEM (Singtel TV Channel 519), and to meet fans here.

In the episode, he will be sharing three recipes of local dishes - but with a twist. They are chilli crab paella (Spanish seafood rice), studded with mussels and squid; Hainanese chicken rice salad; and butter chicken curry with rice noodles.

Given his love of spicy food, Hayami could not stop raving about chilli crab.

"In Japan, crab is usually eaten deep-fried or raw, and in shabu shabu," he says. "Here, crab is cooked more dynamically, with a sweet and spicy sauce that is pungent and aromatic."

He jumped at the chance to learn to cook chilli crab from a chef at a zi char stall in Maxwell Food Centre and drew inspiration from his wetmarket visit to tweak his recipe for chilli crab paella.

Instead of chilli powder, which is commonly used in Japan, he sprinkles his paella with "rare and cutelooking" chilli padi to inject an extra dash of heat into the fusion dish.

Hayami, whose nickname is Moco, is a familiar face in Japan, with Moco's Kitchen being a regular segment on ZIP!, Nippon Television Network's morning news programme.

On GEM channel, the segment has been extracted into weekly 30-minute episodes. Over the past five years, he has demonstrated more than 1,400 recipes spanning Italian, Japanese, French and Chinese cuisines.

Dubbed Japan's answer to British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, the multi-hyphenated star is also an award-winning author. His six volumes of cookbooks, also titled Moco's Kitchen, have sold more than 350,000 copies and garnered a Best Japanese Cuisine Cookbook award at the prestigious Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in 2013. He also has an eponymous line of kitchen utensils.

Before he cooked up a storm, the Tokyo native broke into showbiz in 2002 and gained popularity with drama serials such as Gokusen 2 (2005); Zettai Kareshi, or Absolute Boyfriend (2008); and Rebound (2011). He stars as a freshly minted teacher in comedy drama series Jigoku Sensei Nube, which airs on GEM every Monday and Tuesday at 9pm. He has more than 30 series under his belt.

When asked if he prefers acting or cooking, he says he is torn as "both aspects are very important" to him. However, he reveals that he is most at ease when cooking.

"I have a very tight schedule when it comes to filming dramas as I need to focus to get into character quickly," he says. "But filming a cooking show allows me to revert to my natural self and I like communicating with people through my dishes and making them smile."

1. What did you think of Singapore food during your trip here?

I love the multicultural flavours of Singapore cuisine; the fusion of flavours is sophisticated yet delicate. It is very different from Japanese cuisine, where the food's foundation is based on soya sauce and dashi stock and there's more emphasis on umami flavours.

2. Share with us a local food discovery during your trip here.

I tried Peranakan food for the first time and ayam buah keluak left an impression. Buah keluak is such a unique ingredient. It tastes like dark chocolate.

3. What was your understanding of Singapore food before your trip here?

Singapore cuisine is quite wellreceived in Japan and I notice more restaurants there are serving Singapore food, with chilli crab being a very popular dish. When it comes to spicy food, Japanese people typically go for dried chilli powder, but I am seeing more of them eating chilli pastes, such as sambal.

4. Which cuisines do you like best?

I often cook Italian dishes for lunch, but I like trying different cuisines. After my trip here, I may start cooking more Singapore dishes, such as chilli crab.

5. What are some of the challenges you face on your cooking show?

When coming up with recipes, I try to reduce the number of steps so they are simpler to prepare. Out of the 1,400 dishes I have done on Moco's Kitchen, all of them have been successful. However, it is challenging to do outdoor cooking shoots, like for the Singapore episode. The weather here is very hot and the wind keeps blowing away the condiments and seasonings when I sprinkle them on my dishes.

6. How did your interest in cooking start?

When I was eight, I became intrigued by the cooking television show Iron Chef. I thought it would be cool to cook as well as the chefs on the show. I picked up cooking after watching my brother cook, as I thought that men who cook might be popular with the ladies.

7. So has cooking boosted your popularity with women?

One of the first dishes that I cooked was carbonara pasta and I pasted a photo of the dish on a notice board in school. Soon, the mothers of my classmates noticed it and were very impressed and told me I did a great job. That was when I discovered that guys who can cook will be popular among the ladies.

8. How would you like to be remembered?

Besides being recognised as an actor and chef, I would like to be known for having a diverse range of interests.

•Moco's Kitchen airs on GEM (Singtel TV Channel 519) on Tuesdays at 10.10pm. Jigoku Sensei Nube airs on GEM on Mondays and Tuesdays at 9pm.

This article was first published on Nov 07, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.