Mastering The Art Of Japanese Cooking With Fiona Uyema

One Woman's Journey Of Introducing Japanese Cuisine To The World

How Japanese food changed the life of an Irish woman.

When many years ago Fiona Uyema came to Japan on a one year university exchange program, nothing would hint to her that her life would forever be connected to this country, so far away from her native Ireland. Yet today, she considers Japan her second home and the roots of who she is now: an established Japanese cook, a recipe book writer, media contributor, owner of her own soy sauce brand, and a mother of two sons, who have grown up tasting the best of washoku treats cooked at their own kitchen in Ireland.

“Everyday I continue to be fascinated by the amazing health benefits of the Japanese diet and the concept of balance. Low in fat and high in protein, the Japanese diet is one of the healthiest in the world,” Fiona says, as she recalls the early steps into discovering the Japanese cuisine — now, the core pillar of her career and way of living.

Fiona Uyema during a Japanese cooking demonstration.

The Japan Encounter

Fiona came to Japan in 2000 as a college student, settling down in Gumma prefecture. She was studying International Marketing and Japanese back in Ireland and was here to experience the country for what she thought was a very time-limited encounter. For the first three months she stayed with a host family who became her parents away from home and her first true at-home experience of Japan. They also became the first people to introduce Fiona to the simplicity and natural flavors of the Japanese cuisine, an experience she refers to as “life changing.”

“My homestay mother was a fantastic cook and a very kind lady. In the evenings I would sit at the kitchen table chatting to her and watching her prepare that evening’s meal in her small Japanese kitchen, where the most important appliance is the electric rice cooker. The food was always delicious and I was surprised how easily she could prepare a vast range of dishes from scratch with minimal fuss.”

Fiona discusses her first encounter with Japanese food during an interview with NHK World. To see the full video, click here.

It was this initial experience that made Fiona “fascinated with Japanese food and everything about it,” slowly but surely leading her on her journey of becoming a Japanese home-cook.

After graduating from college, Fiona was quick to return to Japan as an English teacher in a small village in Niigata prefecture. She spent two years living in a rural area without the luxury of 24-hour convenience stores and other culinary distractions, and found herself once again one-to-one with traditional Japanese food. Surrounded by kind neighbors who would regularly leave gifts of locally harvested vegetables on her doorstep, Fiona was inspired to start cooking in the evenings and testing various Japanese recipes, subconsciously storing material for her future recipe books, without even realizing it.

Struggles Back Home

After a few years following her return back home in Ireland, Fiona was faced with a grim reality: she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and put onto a chemo treatment at a local hospital for three months. The food standards there were not what she expected, nor what she believed would help her. She turned to Japanese diet for comfort instead.  

“Every evening my husband came to the hospital with a Japanese bento packed especially for me. I can’t tell you how much I looked forward to this and how it helped me to get through a really tough time,” she recalls.

Thankfully, the chemotherapy was successful and Fiona could return to work the following year. By then, her passion and appreciation for Japanese food had strengthened, becoming a major part of her lifestyle to the point that she felt an urge to share it with the rest of the world.

It was the Japanese food that she found comfort in when going through chemotherapy, Fiona says.

“With cancer, obesity and dietary-related health problems on the increase in Ireland and across the world, I wanted to share my recipes and encourage people to try them at home, as I truly believe that by incorporating Japanese food into their diet, people can live healthier lives.”

Introducing Japanese food to the Irish audience did not appear to be an absurd idea. “Ireland is an island nation like Japan so we have the perfect selection of fresh fish and seafood as well as seaweed to make delicious Japanese dishes,” Fiona says, adding that though ten years ago when she returned to Ireland some Japanese ingredients were difficult to find, the rising popularity of Asian food in Europe has facilitated accessibility in recent years and now almost all basic ingredients can be found at local supermarkets.

From Hobby To Full-Time Career

Just as the seeds were starting to plant in her mind, Fiona got pregnant with her first son and took off a year off from her then-job in the Irish corporate world. During that time she found time to plan ahead and with one thing leading to another she started a cooking blog introducing simple Japanese recipes. It took off well and she soon found herself giving Japanese cooking classes and demonstrating recipes at food festivals and events across Ireland.

“I was energized by the extra work and the response I received from the Irish public and online followers across the globe,” Fiona smiles.

But the big change was yet to come. A local publisher who had read Fiona’s blog posts approached her with the idea of putting her recipes in paper — an experience reminiscent of  Julia Childs’ back in her days in Paris. “I had to pinch myself,” Fiona says, “it was a dream come true.”

Fiona Uyema at a book signing event after the release of her book “Japanese Cooking Made Easy.”

In 2015, her book Japanese Food Made Easy was out in the market, making her busier than ever and establishing her presence in Ireland as one of the most popular Japanese cooks in the country. In a country where Japanese food was on a rapid rise in popularity, the local media was quick to pick up her story, introducing her on a number of TV shows and magazines articles.    

“(By introducing Japanese food in Ireland) I wanted to bring my followers on the same exciting journey that I had when learning to cook Japanese food, so that they too could integrate Japanese cuisine into their lifestyle and enjoy all the benefits that come with a Japanese diet,” she says.

Following her book debut and rising popularity back home, Fiona developed her own range of soy sauce called “Fused by Fiona Uyema”, a selection of three healthy and flavored soy causes, Clever Classic, Cheeky Chilli and Glorious Ginger that promised to bring Japan’s flavors to everyone’s daily cooking. Initially taken as an exotic taste, recently more and more people are starting to realize that the flavors go pretty much with anything that’s on the table — be it BBQ hamburgers or roast potato with Irish goats cheese. Sugar, additive and preservatives-free, these stylishly packaged sauces are what Fiona thinks can “turn a basic dish into a tasty meal within minutes” and “save on time for the busy yet healthy home-cook.” The soy sauce brand is now hugely popular at local supermarkets, Japanese restaurants, and kitchens at home — often presented on shelves along with Fiona’s book.

Looking Ahead

With her own brand on the market, a number of regular TV appearances and constant presence in the media sector, Fiona is steadily paving the way toward a greater recognition of the simplicity and benefits of the Japanese diet in Ireland and other parts of the world. In February this year, she was invited by JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization) to help promote Japanese food and culture to chefs working in 5-star hotels in Dubai as part of Gulfood 2017, the world’s largest annual food event — an experience Fiona describes as “especially enjoyable.” Looking into the future, she dreams of one day having her own Japanese cooking show through which she will continue spreading Japanese home cooking into kitchens across the world.

Fiona with her husband and two sons.

But for the time being she remains devoted to what she truly believes in and wants to share with people — that the Japanese cuisine is key to healthy eating and balanced lifestyle and can be mastered at one’s own kitchen with local ingredients and no fuss. This, and home-made matcha lemonade, of course.

See Fiona’s recipes here and here. For more information visit her official website.

Originally from Bulgaria, Alexandra (Ally) came to Japan with her family at the delicate age of 15 and has never left ever since. After attending (and surviving) a public Japanese high school, she went to an American college in Japan, and later a Japanese grad school, studying international affairs and journalism. Ally is the current managing editor of Savvy Tokyo and also a writer/translator for GPlusMedia's other channels, including Japan Today. She's made of coffee, wine, and books.

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