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Japanese sauce manufacturer tastes sweet success abroad with halal-certified product

A container of Otafuku Sauce Co.'s Okonomi Sauce, which has received halal certification, is seen at the company in Hiroshima's Nishi Ward on Oct. 31, 2019. (Mainichi/Akihiro Nakajima)
Sora Yoshihiro, left, of the development section of Otafuku Sauce Co., which developed the halal-certified Okonomi Sauce, holds a container of the product as he stands next to Hiroya Miyata, head of the company's international business division, at the company in Hiroshima's Nishi Ward on Oct. 31, 2019. (Mainichi/Akihiro Nakajima)

HIROSHIMA -- A major producer of the rich sauce used to flavor "okonomiyaki," a type of savory pancake in Japan, has created a halal version of its popular product to cater to Muslims who are forbidden from eating food containing pork or alcohol.

The move has set Otafuku Sauce Co., based in Hiroshima's Nishi Ward in western Japan, on course to notch up sales of about 100 million yen from sauce produced at its factory in Malaysia, a country with a predominantly Muslim population.

"Our production of halal sauce started with a search for ingredients," recalls 35-year-old Sora Yoshihiro, who played a central role in the product's development.

Otafuku Sauce has been producing what is now called "Okonomi Sauce" since 1952. It was roughly 20 years ago that the company first made a foray into overseas markets. While sharing how to make okonomiyaki, it exported the sauce, and in 2013 set up production factories in the Chinese city of Qingdao, and in Los Angeles in the United States. Okonomiyaki can be made with locally produced ingredients that are easily obtained in most countries, such as flour and cabbage, and it's said there are now some 330 restaurants overseas whose main item on the menu is okonomiyaki.

Malaysia, where Muslims account for about 60% of the population, and other countries in Southeast Asia with large Muslim populations, however, were a new challenge for the sauce manufacturer. Okonomi Sauce, which has a vegetable and fruit base, blends about 20 types of condiments -- and also contains a tiny amount of alcohol to add to the aroma, as well as meat extract to add to the flavor. But Muslims are forbidden from consuming these -- leaving the company wondering how to surmount the problem.

In February 2016, with only about half a year until the local factory in Malaysia began operating, Yoshihiro began searching for a solution.

To reduce costs, ingredients were restricted to items that could be procured in Malaysia. Traveling between Malaysia and Japan at least once a month, Yoshihiro focused on securing ingredients and testing and tasting them, trying about 50 in all. In place of meat extract, he used the tasty umami constituents of bonito and oysters, and conducted strict checks to make sure it contained no alcohol. Instead of using date fruit to make the sauce sweet and rich, he used date juice, noting that it was easy to use. To add depth to the sweetness of the sauce, brown sugar was added.

The final product, which was said to be close to the sauce in Japan, with a rich and sweet flavor that locals liked, was completed just around one month before the Malaysia factory started operating.

Following screening of the ingredients and production process by a government organization in Malaysia, which is known for its stringent standards, the sauce was given halal certification in March 2017, indicating that it was safe for Muslims to eat. In the summer of 2017 at a Bon dance festival organized by a local association of Japanese nationals in Malaysia, an okonomiyaki stall was opened, advertising the sauce as a halal product. It attracted attention, and restaurants started to use it for locally cooked fried foods as well.

As of 2018 the factory in Malaysia was able to produce about 310,000 liters of Okonomi Sauce in a year, about one-hundredth of what is produced in Japan. But the sauce has also been exported to Indonesia and Brunei, which have large Muslim populations, and over the year ending September 2019, sales from the factory reached 92.8 million yen -- about 1.6 times the figure recorded in the same period the previous year. Hiroya Miyata, the 50-year-old head of the company's international business division, commented, "We're struggling to keep up with demand." The company now has plans to build a second factory.

Overseas sales of the company's sauce stood at 2.1 billion yen during the same period, about 8% of its total sales. With an eye on selling more of the sauce to households rather than just to businesses, the company has opened classes teaching people how to make okonomiyaki.

"We want to make okonomiyaki a borderless food that is eaten throughout the world," Miyata said.

(Japanese original by Akihiro Nakajima, Hiroshima Bureau)

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