Over 7500 kilometres and more than 24 hours travel to the East from Finland lays Japan. Despite this distance, it is in this part of the world that Turku-based restaurant Karu finds its influences.
Recently Karu’s style has been rebranded and they have been visible, and tastable, at many different festivals during summer. Therefore it is about time to visit the restaurant and immerse ourselves in the Asian vibes of Turku.
Karu is based on the idea of an izakaya. An izakaya is not just an average restaurant in Japan. The word consists of I meaning ‘to stay’ and sakaya which translates as ‘sake store’. As implied, these tavern-like eateries originated as sake stores where shopkeepers allowed their customers to consume the just-bought drinks and later started serving snacks. Naturally izakaya restaurants are small, locally-owned places where hospitality is very important. The (often regular) customers can expect a personal interaction with the waiter, who serves as an entertaining host.
Similarly, at Karu the focus is on small portions and shareable dishes, and they have a great selection of sake. When we visited the restaurant the vegan food festival Vegånia was about to start and there is a vegan version of the Karu tasting menu especially for this occasion. We decided to order both the vegan and non-vegan menus. We were curious to see what vegan alternatives the Karu chefs had come up with, and wanted to support the festival’s goals.
The food came in well balanced portions, in size as well as in flavour. In almost every course there was some dish to share which invited us to talk about the taste experiences. For example the homemade kimchi, a traditional side dish made from salted and fermented vegetables like zucchini and eggplant, was a real treat. Also the strawberry chilli sauce was an excellent mix of a Finnish seasonal summer product and Asian cuisine.
Sushi couldn’t be skipped, even in the vegan menu. Interesting improvisations with sous vide-cooked tomato and roasted corn worked surprisingly well in place of the traditional seafood. Out of curiosity I asked if the wasabi was something that could be homemade. This proves to be harder than one might think. After a quick consult with the chef, the waiter told us that the fresh wasabi roots cost about 240 euros per kilogram and have a minimum purchase of 5 kilograms. Practically this is not feasible to make yourself, especially in the amounts used at Karu. However, they assure us that their wasabi is of a high quality and that they are always looking for even better products.
Besides the food we obviously had to try sake, Japanese rice wine. Sake is made from fermenting rice, and is therefore actually more similar to beer in its brewing process. The difference is that in the brewing process of beer the transformation from starch to sugars and from sugars to alcohol is separated, but with sake it happens simultaneously. This results in a higher alcohol percentage. The variety of sakes that we tasted all had some notable characteristic and were chosen to suit the food we were enjoying. Karu offers a selection of rice wines from small producers and, coincidentally, one of the main importers that Karu works with is based in the Netherlands. It was absolutely an authentic experience of Asian tastes.
Karu has been working hard to make Asian culture and cuisine present in Turku and has succeeded well in our opinion. Most of the information for this article is based on the excellent service from our waiter, and overall the atmosphere was very cosy, relaxed and intimate. At the end of our visit we finally realised we had been listening to an exclusive Japanese Hip Hop playlist, which further added to our experience.
It’s no wonder that Karu has a lot of regular customers. More surprising, however, is their upcoming and exceptional promotional stunt in collaboration with Kintaro Tattoo. On the 24th of August there will be a special walk-in at Kintaro, where there will be ten flash designs based on traditional Japanese tattoo art. Those that get tattooed with one of these designs will receive two Karu tasting menus for the price of one in 2018. The tattoo is therefore your member card for the restaurant! Every year the benefits of your tattoo will change. After our visit to Karu, we’re seriously considering adding to our collection of ink so we can reap the sushi and sake benefits!