This Malaysian sushi chef's life is manga come alive

It's not the Olympics and the TV spotlights were not trained on the contestants. There were no cheering Malaysian crowds. But Tai Koon Siang edged out 25 sushi chefs from around the world to win second place at the World Sushi Cup 2016 in Tokyo.

Who's this lad of 33 years from Kluang in Johor who has shot up in the sushi masterchef game?

In his teens, while still in secondary school, Tai - or Sky as he is known - was hooked on a Japanese comic-based TV drama series Shota No Sushi, about a teen boy and his journey from apprentice to top sushi chef.

"I was impressed by Shota's passion, perseverance and sense of responsibility in his journey to become a master sushi chef and decided to follow in his footsteps," he said in an e-mail interview from Singapore where he is head chef at Standing Sushi Bar.

After school, the 18-year-old decided to join his father who was working in Singapore as a foreman and started out in the kitchen of Ishin Japanese Restaurant in Dhoby Ghaut (now closed) as an apprentice.

"Training to be a Japanese chef is a tough process. In a typical traditional Japanese restaurant, one has to start from the lowest rank. In the beginning, I was only allowed to do the cleaning and washing. I was not allowed in the cooking process - not even the cutting of ingredients. Every day, I would stand beside the counter to observe the chefs while they were preparing the meals. And when the chefs are not around, I sneaked in some practice!" said Tai.

He got his first break at the Genki Sushi outlets at United Square and Orchard Forum where he catered sushi platters for hotels. Next stop, Tetsu at Tanglin Mall as assistant chef where he chalked up experience in fine Japanese dining.

Tai joined Standing Sushi Bar five years ago as sushi chef. As head chef now, he oversees four outlets of the chain and comes up with the menus and creative sushis.

He first joined the World Sushi Cup last year when it was held in Singapore to test his limits, hone his skills, improve his game and meet sushi chefs from around the world.

Tai won first place for creative sushi and third place for Edomae (traditional) sushi, emerging the overall runner-up, with the gold going to Brazilian Celso Hideji Amano.

Tell us about your creations for the original sushi.

For the creative sushi category, I wanted a sushi that represents Singapore as I was competing under the banner of Standing Sushi Bar of Singapore. So I created a laksa sushi and char siew sushi.

What do you think the judges were impressed by in the Edomae round?

It must be my maki-mono, basic sushi rolls. The simplest thing in life is also the most difficult. To make a perfect sushi roll, you need to make sure every sushi is identical, neat and attractive.

How did you gear yourself up for the challenge?

During the competition in 2015, I got to know fellow sushi chefs in Singapore. From them, I learnt more about sushi making techniques. We frequently shared ideas. I honed my skills in crafting, turning sasa (bamboo) leaves into pieces of ornament. I timed myself when preparing the ingredients and making sushi to ensure that I met the competition timing.

Name the three most important things you need to make good sushi?

Practice, practice and practice. Going through the process again and again allows you to become a master of your trade.

What's the most interesting thing about being a sushi chef?

In my view, it's getting to know the Japanese culture. For example, people in Tokyo prefer stronger seasoning for their food. In Osaka, they prefer a lighter taste and in Kyoto, the taste preference is even lighter still. Anyway, to be a good sushi chef, you need to have a strong interest in Japanese food and its culture. You must also be willing to work hard and give your best to your job.

Which skill will take a sushi chef to the next level?

Houcho or knife skills. Being good with knives lets you slice fish in a way that retains its texture and moisture. It also makes for a beautiful presentation. A good cut is smooth, sharp and shiny. Apart from cutting skills, a sharp knife is equally important.

What knives do you own?

Previously, I did not own any knives - even though I am a knife lover. But just before the competition, I was given a knife by a senior in the industry. In Japanese culture, giving a knife to another person is a token of recognition of the receiver. A sushi chef needs the three basic knives - Deba (to cut fish fillet), Usuba (to cut vegetables) and Yanagiba (to slice sashimi). So when I was in Tokyo recently, I decided to buy my own Yanagiba and Deba from Kama-Asa in Kappabashi.

On choosing knives:

Every chef will have a personal liking for a particular brand. What matters most is how the knife feels when held by the chef in his hands. But do consider the material the blade is made of: Kigami, Shirogami or Aogami. Kigami is the softest carbon steel while Aogami is the hardest. The harder the blade, the more skill is required by the chef to sharpen it. Most chefs will choose to use knives made of Shirogami or Aogami.

What is the trend in sushi now?

Me-de-tabemasu, that is, "to feast with your eyes". In Japan, the culture is to first enjoy the food with your eyes, then with your mouth. The sushi must first be attractive to the eye before the taste buds. Or in today's case, young foodies "dine" first with the cameras before eating. So presentation has become even more important in sushi making.

What is better about working in Singapore?

There are a lot of good Japanese restaurants concentrated in this small island. As such, I have the opportunity to taste their food and learn from them.

What's the future like?

I'd like to be a sushi chef in Japan and also open an izakaya or sushi bar in Malaysia.

World Sushi Cup

The World Sushi Cup is a global challenge started in 2013. It is endorsed by Japan's ministry of agricultural and the All Japan Sushi Association World Sushi Skills Institute and aims to improve sushi standards overseas as its popularity grows.

Held over two days, the match consists of two parts. The first is Edomae, or the making of traditional Edo-style sushi and contestants are judged on hygiene, knife skills, speed, and preparation techniques. On day 2, they compete on creative sushi, coming up with new toppings and presentation.

According to the organisers, the tournament is not just a competition but an endeavour to spread Japanese cuisine-related information. Participants attend intensive skills training workshops and seminars like the Kuro-obi workshop conducted by Masayoshi Kazato, chairman of All Japan Sushi Association World Sushi Skills Institute on making uniquely Japanese sushi using akagai (ark shell), anago (conger eel), and etc.

In 2015, another Singapore-based Malaysian, Damien Tan from Penang, also won second place at the Global Sushi Challenge in Tokyo.