Thursday, November 24, 2011

Becoming a food hygiene manager in Japan

One of the requirements of opening a food related business in Japan is that you need to have a person who is the designated 'food hygiene manager' / shokuhin eisei sekininsha / 食品衛生責任者. My understanding is that if you are already a qualified chef, nutritionist (etc.) you can be given this designation fairly simply. Since I'm not already qualified, and since I'm planning to start this business alone I've been looking into the possibility of becoming a food hygiene manager as a foreigner in Japan.

The training takes the form of a 1-day seminar with sessions on relevant topics, ending with a short test to see that you've taken in the information given during the day. Yes, it's all in Japanese, but there is no guidance against foreigners applying, and on the Japan Food Hygiene Association's official website's FAQ they discuss non-Japanese people taking the test saying something like there shouldn't be a problem "as long as they have enough linguistic ability to pass the test, and have an alien card" (or the upcoming equivalent replacement of the alien card, I guess).

The seminars for Tokyo are held multiple times a month. You apply by post (application form) or directly at the health centre, specifying your top 3 choices of times and places to attend - it seems they get booked up. If all goes well on the day and you pass the test, you'll come away with the certificate there and then. You must then display it in an easy to see place on your premises. I'm going to see if I can spot and take pictures of some of them I see round and about town.

According to blogs from people who have attended the seminars, the test is supposed to be fairly simple. It's a multiple choice, so if your kanji reading skills are good and if you study up in advance I don't see why there wouldn't be a very good chance of passing. Since this is just a one-day thing it does seem to me that the real rationale behind this requirement is to designate the person to blame (fire?) in the event something goes wrong (^ - ^); 

There is a nice page here, with a sample test, along with explanations of the answers:

And here is one of the questions, with a rough translation:
問1 食品衛生法に基づく営業許可に関する記述で、正しいものはどれか。
  1. 菓子製造業を営業しようとする者は、都道府県知事が定めた施設基準に適合しなければ営業許可が与えられない。
  2. 菓子製造業の常業許可には、有効期限がないので、一回取得すれば施設がある限り営業することができる。
  3. 菓子製造業を営業しようとする者は、住所地の市町村長の営業許可を受けなければならない。
  4. 菓子製造業の営業許可を受けた者は、施設に必ず食品衛生管理者を置かなければならない。
Hygiene Law Questions
Q1 Based on food hygiene law, which of the following is correct regarding business permits?
  1. Persons wanting to run a confectionery business will not be given a business permit if their facilities do not meet the requirements of the relevant authority.
  2. A confectioner's business permit has no expiry date, so you can continue to operate as long as you have the facilities.
  3. Persons wanting to start a confectionery business need to get permission from their local mayor.
  4. A person who has a permit to run a confectionery business has to have a food hygiene supervisor at the facility.
The correct answer is 1. 
Hmm, it was a bit trickier than I thought it might be, because as I was thinking that 4 could also be correct. Reading more carefully though, it seems that the distinction is between a food hygiene sekininsha, and a food hygiene kanrisha. The kanji translates roughly as 'person responsible' in the case of sekininsha and 'manager' for kanrisha, but confusingly the most common usage of 食品衛生責任者 in English uses 'manager' for sekininsha already. Easier to think about it in Japanese I guess! The reason 4 is wrong then, is that although you need a food hygiene sekininnsha ('person responsible for') you don't need a food hygiene kanrisha ('supervisor' or official manager) when you're only running a cake shop or restaurant. Kanrisha are needed when you're manufacturing things like dairy products and meats, in factories I should imagine.

Aside from studying up for and taking the test, I also need to find out what the health and safety requirements are for opening food businesses in my area of Tokyo. That's one of my next tasks, and maybe it'll require a trip to the local Health Office. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

My Tokyo Business Entry Point visit

While I await the verdict on my permanent resident visa application (I'll know in April 2012 at the earliest) I'm starting to look into the steps I'll need to take to set up shop. I'm about to head off to Tokyo Business Entry Point (TBEP) (2014 note! The service's name has now changed to "Business Development Centre Tokyo and the direct link to their site is here), a free consultation service "providing a wide range of useful information for foreign-affiliated businesses and entrepreneurs who are already operating or are considering establishment of a business base in Tokyo."

Although very welcoming, their site describes their services so broadly "…available to answer various questions.." that I'm not sure if my 'little shop' idea is really in line with the kind of enquiries they prefer to deal with. The email exchanges have been encouraging however, so I'm looking forward to visiting. I'm hoping they'll be able to tell me the kind of licenses I will need for the different activities I'm thinking of doing, and the costs and procedures involved in getting them. I'll post a write-up of the consultation, and let you know what kind of things TBEP is interested in helping with.

... A little while later...

Gosh, well that was very nice! I spent a pleasant hour with two kind gentlemen in the partially screened-off section of a sprawling open plan government office that is Tokyo Business Entry Point. TBEP is part of the Bureau of Industrial and Labor Affairs, and when I visited had offices on the 30th floor of the North Tower of the No.1 Tokyo Metropolitan Government building directly above Tochomae station. Please note! TBEP have moved to a new location, JP Tower close to Tokyo Station.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (old office of TBEP)

Quite the view! 
It started with a little light form filling, and then the gentleman I had been in contact with picked up on some of the things he'd looked into following my email.

His first recommendation was to try to spend as little as possible at the outset and build the business before thinking about a space. Of the three parts of the business I had explained to them, he recommended me to start with the cooking school: "you don't actually need a license" they went on to suggest I use my kitchen, or a community centre kitchen to get going without much start-up money, and gave me a list of those of types of places in Minato-ku. I feel a little reluctant about the suggestion. I think it might be easy to get pulled into this type of casual activity, and it might keep me from sorting out my own business space. I felt that the lessons would be more incidental to the cafe space, but it could be a great way to get more experience and to build a community base even before the shop opens. Wouldn't lessons in the shop and lessons in a community centre be quite different though, and the participants also be of a different type? Clearly more thinking to do…

Regarding having a cafe space, the main thing they wanted to talk to me about was the need to partner with someone because a business producing or selling food requires having a designated hygiene manager. I had heard about the health certificate, seen them framed on the walls of the Matsuya fast food chain, and asked if I might be able to get one myself. They told me to check with my local health centre, but imagined it would be quite difficult because I'd probably need to do an exam in Japanese. Well I think I've found my next research project!

They gave me this list of the steps to get a business permit to open a restaurant in Tokyo. They also recommended that I consult with real estate agents who deal with closed businesses - this would help me find a ready furbished space with the oven and equipment I'd need, and hopefully work out more reasonably than me buying everything new. They gave me the names of two agents who specialise in these types of properties. This was a great piece of advice, I just hope I can be lucky enough to find something affordable, nice enough, in one of the locations I have in mind… Exciting!

When asked what kind of legal entity a cake shop usually is in Tokyo, they replied that a stock company kabushiki kaisha would probably be best as it's now possible to start one with 1-yen capital, and it would help me appear credible for any loans, partners and customer interactions. They mentioned that if family and friends want to help me start the business in the form of loans, then I could consider having them as board members or 'employees', and pay back those loans in the form of 'salaries' because loans don't look good on company books. I have a feeling that there could be a lot of strange pathways and loopholes to navigate in the course of running a business in Japan.

Speaking of shades of grey, I was very embarrassed to ask my next question. I didn't know how to phrase it. I certainly didn't want to use the word 'yakuza' and was aware that asking a government worker their opinion of whether I needed to worry about organized crime when considering starting a business in Tokyo might not be the best bet. After some verbal squirming along the lines of "well, Nishi Azabu is near Roppongi, and.. you know, protection money, that kind of thing" they caught my drift and reassured me that it wasn't something I needed to worry about, particularly as my cake shop would be closed well before nightclub hours. I felt silly, they were quietly amused.

I asked them what they usually do at TBEP when not advising about cake shops, and found that the range is quite extensive. They defined themselves as similar to JETRO but dealing with mainly small and medium sized businesses, whereas JETRO deals only with large companies. They also give advice to foreign businesses for their day-to-day needs such as which hospitals have English speaking staff. They are currently helping a medium sized company based in Osaka set up an office in Tokyo, and they have been visit the trade departments of various embassies to see what help they can give international companies looking to find partners or set up in Tokyo. I checked, but they said there isn't any kind of enquiry that they don't want. Their only limitation is that when giving introductions they always have to give more than one option, in order to remain impartial, which from the enquirer's point of view doesn't sound like much of a problem at all ;)

So yes, it was a useful and enjoyable visit, I didn't feel rushed or belittled at all. It was nice to have all my questions considered carefully - there wasn't one insincere smile when they talked about the tiny cake shop, and they added quite a few spontaneous suggestions for me to consider. I understand now why the TBEP site is so vague about what they do, they really do accept all kinds of enquires! We spoke partly in Japanese and partly in English, but they can handle enquiries purely in English, and I'd recommend booking a free consultation with them if you like me are wondering where to start with your business idea.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

You too can have real Bramley apple pie, in Japan!

My excitement might be difficult to understand: I found Bramley apples in Japan! (Also see my later post about the original home of Bramleys in Japan.) I've looked before, in English and Japanese, and found only "currently out of season" information on seller sites, and the Bramley Fan Club site which interesting though it is, didn't tell me how to get my hands on the unprocessed fruit itself.

Apple pies of all varieties can be lovely, and everyone has their favourite type. In Japan anything called 'pie' is usually made with a flaky puff-pastry type crust. In fact you can even get 'leaf pie' which sounds horrid now I think about it in English, but refers to a biscuit-type piece of sweet flaky pastry in the shape of a leaf. See for yourself, there is nothing forest-floor about it. Most apple pies you'll get in Japan then are of the flakes of pastry down your front variety, and are filled with dessert apples. No!

Sorry. I don't really mean to decry anyone else's love of apple pie made with Fuji apples, or any other dessert apple, it's just that I crave what I had when I was little. The house I grew up in had 2 Bramley apple trees and a cherry tree. Each year we'd try to get as much of the ripening fruit as we could in a fight against the crows who would take all the best ones as they ripened first at the top of the tree. I have fond memories of washing and peeling the fruit, rolling out the pastry with Mum, and the taste - the perfectly balanced tart and sweet result you get from the high-acid cooking apple. That's the taste I crave. A well structured white wine, a nice riesling let's say, will have an element of acidity to balance out the sugar in the palate, without it, it's just a flabby 80's Blue Nun - that's how I feel about apple pie made with dessert apples. Many non-cooking apples also keep their shape far too well during cooking, resulting in dry slices of over-sweet apple in your pie, rather than a lush tangy-sweet puree with pieces of soft apple. Am I being too forceful about this?

You might now be vicariously excited to learn that, giving the cooking apple quest another go the other day I came across 北の果族 Kitanokazoku, an online store for a farm shop in Hokkaido which stocked among their produce what appeared to be real bramley apples. I put in my order in disbelief, surely a 5kg box of Bramley apple jam will arrive.. The method was cash on delivery, quite a common payment method used in Japan, so I felt the only thing I was risking was the chance of being hugely disappointed upon the arrival of a box of juice. It was all so fast! I could select the upcoming Saturday morning as my delivery time, and there, I was done.

Saturday morning the box arrived, I steeled myself. The cats were just as fascinated with the arrival of a new package - though to be fair, they like all new boxes.

Kyaa! What's inside?

Removing the newspaper covering the top revealed a beautiful sight. Just look at them! In true Japanese fruit rearing fashion, these apples were perfect. The fruit of my childhood were a little more gnarled, and well, littler. I don't think we ever beat the crows to any apples ripe enough to be slightly red.

Bramley 'E-1' seedling apples

I gleefully resolved to spend the day making up a few different kinds of pastry and crumbles. I tried regular shortcrust and sweet shortcrust pastry, and now have a freezer full of pies and crumbles that should last us a while.

Sweet shortcrust Bramley apple pie. Oh yeah!

This pie, a sweet shortcrust pastry filled simply with slices of apple sprinkled with sugar and spices and dotted with butter, with little leafy decorations on top, was my clear favourite. When I make these pies again I'll use more apples I think, but the flavour was spot on, fulfilling my ambitions of that real apple pie of my childhood taste in a way worthy of Proust. :)

A lady from the Kitakazoku store explained that they keep the apples in cold storage, and so they will still have stock well into next year, probably up until March, at which point we'll have to wait for them to come back in season. "E-1" stands for England-1, meaning they are true English Bramleys. They also have Cox Orange Pippin apples, wow!
(Postscript - 2013, Kitakazoku online store is now closed. For Bramley apples try Obuse-ya in Nagano or 三氣の辺 in Hokkaido. Also check here for further updates!)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Christmas cake in Japan (part 2 - recipe!)

A taste of England's festive season in Japan. Love it or hate it, it's unlikely you'll pass a winter in the UK without being offered some traditional Christmas cake.

Here is the recipe for the fruit cake I was hankering after making in my last post (marzipan and icing to come much - weeks!- later). At the end of the post I also included the main links I used in adapting it.
  • 215g unsalted butter at room temperature*
  • 215g dark brown sugar
  • 225g all purpose plain flour
  • 4 free-range eggs, lightly beaten, at room temperature
  • ½ tsp of vanilla essence
  • ½ tsp of fine salt
  • ½ tsp mixed spice (unavailable, even at Nissin, gasp! Make your own**)
  • Pinch ground nutmeg (or fresh if you can find it)
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • Zest of 1 medium orange and 1 lemon
  • 700g mixed dried fruits (350g currants, 175g sultanas, 175g raisins - or preferred combination)
  • Handful of dried apricots, chopped
  • 80g chopped mixed candied peel (I found lemon and orange candied peel at Nissin)
  • 50g glacé cherries, (rinsed, dried and chopped - you can use more if you like them, I'm not so keen)
  • 100g blanched almonds (not roasted), chopped (using some hazelnuts would be nice too)
  • 1-2 tbsp molasses (I used the Brer rabbit brand from Nissin. Traditionally black treacle is used, but molasses give a better flavour apparently.)
  • Brandy*** (1 slug to soak the fruit, and then keep half a bottle or so handy to feed the cake for the next few weeks, a few tablespoons at a time.)
Nissin supermarket had ALL of the above ingredients (hurrah!), apart from the mixed spice.

You'll also need a 8 or 9 inch (20-23cm) cake tin, and lots of grease-proof paper. Set your oven to 140°C. The hardest things about this stage of making a Christmas cake are probably sourcing the ingredients and correctly judging the cooking time.

Soak dried fruit in a bowl overnight with a slug of brandy. Delia suggests that 3 tablespoons are sufficient to "plump up the fruit" but I found that with 700g of fruit a more generous splosh was called for.

Introducing the fruit to the brandy. That's a lot of fruit!

Grease and line your 8 or 9 inch cake tin (great page here, with a video on a quick way to make parchment circles).


To get ready, measure out your spices, mix all the fruit, nuts and peel and zest together in one bowl, and crack your room temperature eggs into another bowl and add the vanilla essence and molasses to the eggs, beat lightly. Cream the butter and sugar together with hand mixer (or by hand) 'till fluffy in a third very large bowl. With no baking powder in this recipe, this is the part of the process that incorporates air into the batter for leavening. Mix the beaten eggs bit by bit into the butter mixture (avoid curdling by having the butter and eggs at room temperature, and you can also use a little flour while adding eggs a bit at a time).

Add a little flour to prevent curdling.

Sift flour, salt and spices into the mixture and gently fold them in (over mixing the flour, or leaving the mixed batter to hang around too long will produce too much gluten and give you a tougher, dry cake). Carefully fold in soaked fruits, chopped nuts, candied peel and fresh zest.

I need bigger bowls!

Spoon into greased and lined cake tin, smooth down the top and make a little well in centre to avoid the cake rising too dome-like.

Make sure to remember to cover the top of the cake with a piece of parchment to avoid burning. Tying brown paper around the outside of the cake can help to prevent the outside of the cake cooking too quickly as well. Cook at 140°C for about 3-4 hours.

The final cooking time will depend on your oven, and regardless of the setting you use your oven may be lying to you about the actual temperature inside. Check around 2.5 hours - is the top browning too quickly? You might need to turn the heat down - best to err on the side of cooler temperature/longer cooking for Christmas cake. The tests to find out if the cake is done are whether a skewer through the centre of the cake comes out clean, or if the middle of the cake springs back when lightly pressed.

Once it's done, leave it in the tin for half an hour, then turn it onto a wire rack to cool completely. Make a few holes with a chopstick and pour in the first couple of tablespoons of brandy. You'll want to wrap the cake in grease-proof paper and then foil, and put it in an air tight container. Repeat the 'feeding' on alternate sides each week leading up to December and the great marzipaning/icing of the cake. But more on that later.

I'll edit the recipe based on how this turns out. Let me know how it goes if you make your own!


* Why use unsalted butter if you're then going to add salt?
This is something that had bugged me for a while, especially since butter of any variety has been harder to come by recently. I looked through a few different sites and forums (fora?) until I found an answer that made sense to me: a) you want to be able to control how much salt to use in any given recipe, and more importantly b) unsalted butter is purer than salted butter. Apparently the preservative qualities of salt mean that aside from being able to keep the butter longer, a lower percentage butterfat can comprise the finished product, with the rest made of presumably cheaper milk solids and water. Unsalted butter is better quality then, and is likely to give you a better bake.

** Making your own British 'mixed spice':
Mix together 1 tsp cinnamon, 3/4 tsp nutmeg, 1 tsp ground coriander  1/2 tsp ginger, 1/2 tsp allspice, 1/4 tsp cloves. I also added a pinch of ground caraway seeds. You end up with a more than you need for one cake, but you can store the rest to make sticky toffee pudding, Yorkshire parkin, your own mincemeat filling for mince pies... Note! 'Mixed spice' is a particularly British mix which is different to 'all spice' which is different again to '5 spice'. How confusing. If you want to buy your spices in bulk, try Spice Home behind Roppongi Hills, near Cafe 8.

*** Brandy (cognac), rum, whisky, sherry, port or Baileys in my Christmas cake?
I chose brandy, mainly because I thought it might bring out something nice in the dried apricots in the mix, however I've seen a good many recipes also recommend rum. Sherry could be good and feels appropriately festive as long as it's not too sweet, and I feel port should be avoided for the same reason (just my opinion here though.) I feel that whisky would overpower the fruit in the cake, and match less well with the marzipan and sugary icing, but again, if you love the taste of whisky, you'll love the result. I would steer well clear of putting Baileys, Kahlua, Malibu, limoncello, chocolate liqueur in the cake. What have you had great results with, and how much of the bottle did you end up using? ;)

Here are places I got some of the ideas from: (Delia's trusted recipe, great photos on how to protect the cake tin once it's filled.) (Includes conversions for different sized cake tins.)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Christmas cake in Japan (part 1)

British style Christmas cake (c) jystewart
Although November might seem a bit early to many people to be thinking about Christmas cake, it's actually a little on the late side when you're talking about real homemade, heavy, fruity English Christmas cake. And well, the first festive jingles are already starting to be played in Tokyo Starbucks..

Christmas cake in Japan is usually eaten on Christmas Eve and is a lighter, fluffier affair - a vanilla sponge 'shortcake' filled and covered with whipped cream and topped with strawberries, looking like something Father Christmas might wear. It's lovely, and so popular that you can order yours from any convenience store, or make it at home thanks to the out of season abundance of show-stopping strawberries specifically grown for the purpose appearing in supermarkets from December.
Japanese style strawberry shortcake (c) Tomomarusan

Strawberry shortcake is all well and good, but it doesn't fit the bill traditionally speaking - not the tradition I grew up in anyway, and it feels more like a summer cake, a bit out of place on a cold winter day. There must be shops that do traditional English style boozy Christmas fruitcakes, but I fancied having a go at making my own. I have heard that the home made versions are hard to beat, fed on brandy for weeks leading up to Christmas, then lovingly tucked up in marzipan (also home made - have you found any pre-made blocks in Tokyo..?), slathered with real royal icing (no 'ready-roll' fondant for this cake!), and decorated I'm not yet sure how.

It'll be a first for me, and I don't know how it will turn out, but for those who are interested in trying for themselves, I'll follow up in the next post with how I did it and where I got the ingredients and accouterments.