Japanese Woman Opens Restaurant in Old Havana

By Regina Cano  (Photos: Juan Suarez)

Sayuri Yoshida

HAVANA TIMES — Tokyo-born Sayuri Yoshida has set up a small crepes and Japanese food establishment at the intersection of Aguacate and Obrapia Streets in Old Havana, drawing in more and more customers thanks to the distinction and variety of her menu.

The owner, a journalist and admirer of Cuba, has decided to open her own business in the country “before the Americans, who eat up everything.” She named the restaurant (“Crepe Sayu”) after her small daughter.

Sayuri and her little girl, the daughter of a renowned Cuban artist, have already settled into the habits and rhythms of this neighborhood in Havana, where they are loved and served by many.

Tell us about Crepe Sayu

Sayuri: When I bought a house here (planning to rent out rooms) I had the idea of opening “Crepe Sayu.”

I asked myself: “what could I do in Cuba?” Making certain foods here is difficult, you can’t always find all the ingredients.

So, I focused on what never foes missing: flour, eggs, milk. So, after asking myself what I could throw together with those things, this idea came along.

Sayuri-3You can prepare crepes in Cuba. I’m not a professional chef. I’m a journalist. But a Japanese woman always knows how to cook.

Crepes can be either sweet or salty. They’re made of dough, like a taco, and you can prepare it with any kind of meat, eggs, shrimp or sweets.

At first, we tried selling them along the Malecon ocean drive, to know whether Cubans liked them or not, and we ended up selling a lot.

At another point in time, I realized there’s always plenty of sweet potato around and I started making sweet potato rissoles, in addition to the crepes. We use potatoes in Japan, but you can’t find potatoes all the time in Cuba. There’s a place where you can buy sweet potatoes in Japan also. I use my own ingredients (which makes the food taste different) and people, buy, do they buy it up! They also order takeaway.

Now, I am also preparing dishes with rice.

Since when do you live in Cuba?

Sayuri: Since around 12 years ago. I came as a tourist the first time. I had a project about Hiroshima and Nagasaki called “Atena Japan” and I published a book, donating about 10,000 copies to Cuba so that children here would learn about the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.

Sayu and her father Nelson Dominguez.
Sayu and her father Nelson Dominguez.

I fell in love with the island, I liked it a lot. I wrote a book about it. That’s when I met Nelson Dominguez, while interviewing him for the book.

He’s the father of my child. At first, I felt he was too old for me, but, a year later, I accepted him. He’s a good and very serious man.

We got married. I became pregnant and gave birth to a girl – Sayu Dominguez Yoshida – in Japan, because, at the time, I was working as a journalist there. Cuba didn’t give me a sense of security, I didn’t want to move here, because there are no diapers or milk here, and everything seemed hard to me. It was easier for me to raise my child in Japan. I also didn’t speak Spanish very well.

Nelson and I separated about three years ago. However he really looks after my daughter! He’s a good father. He always looks after her on Saturdays and Sundays.

It wasn’t convenient for us to live here at the time, but, when my girl started at preschool, we felt it was better to be in Cuba. I like Cuba for my daughter.

Things are easier on the island. Many people look after children, even the neighbors, everyone looks after them. They don’t do that in Japan.

In my country, if my daughter wants to play with a friend, I have to go and stay with her. Other parents consider it a huge responsibility, they don’t even want to touch someone else’s child.

I also like Cuba’s history, because of the revolution.

I don’t care whether its capitalism or socialism, what I like is the mentality of Cubans, the thought of Jose Marti and Fidel: living together, helping one another, not competing, I like things that way. Also, after the Second World War, Japan changed drastically, because the United States went in there and now, of everything we have there, half of it comes from the United States.

Japan doesn’t have many original things and it changed many others, but Cuba struggles against the United States. Cuba is poor, you can’t find many things, but…it’s amazing how people here live! The country has managed to survive through struggle.

How strong Cubans are! I feel respect towards them.

There aren’t many things here, but, over there, if something breaks, people throw it out and buy something new. Here, in Cuba, people find a way to fix things…it’s a smarter thing to do. I learned all this over time and have come to like it.

Cubans are smart. I’m a journalist and I’ve traveled to many, many countries. You can find just about anything in poor countries, but people have no education. Cubans were a surprise for me. They’re poor, but they’ve had an education, they’re smart. Cuba is a unique country, I like it a lot.

I want Sayu to learn from Cuba, so I became a Cuban resident and put my girl in school.

Sayu is now six. She’s already in the second grade. Everyone in Old Havana and everywhere knows here. She’s a bundle, a real bundle!

I run the shop during the school year and we vacation in Japan.

I have five brothers and four of them work with my father. That’s how they make a living, they run a business together. We’re two girls, and my sister is also a journalist.

Why did you start the business?

Sayuri: We had to set up a business, because I didn’t have money.

Sayuri-2I have a license and pay taxes, of course. I employ two Cuban women. They each work every second day.

I’m the only Japanese woman in Cuba with a business like this. Other people have sushi restaurants, but the owners are Cuban.

The hardest part is finding the ingredients. You can find shrimp, lobster and octopus. The sweet potato rissoles and sushi are the most popular dishes, but the Japanese sauce I’m using requires many condiments that I can only buy in Japan.

I bring over the algae for the sushi, because you can’t find it in Cuba. I also bring over the wasabi. As for the rice, I use the local kind, but I don’t use oil to cook it. I also use the soy sauce they have here, if I can find it, but not too much of it…it’s too dark. Things don’t cook well with it, it isn’t very good – it’s too salty and doesn’t smell too good. It’s better in Japan.

The business is doing very well.

What’s on the menu now?

Sayuri: The salty crepes include the following toppings: Toncatsu (breaded pork), Shogayaki (ginger pork), Ebifurai (breaded shrimp with mayonnaise), breaded fish, ham and eggs (all topped with watercress, cabbage and onions). The sweet crepes come with banana, guava or chocolate pudding.

Some of these stuffings I use for the crepes are also served with rice and sweet potato rissoles. I offer shrimp, octopus or lobster sushi separately, as well as octopus Danburi. We have lemonade slurpees to drink.

Japanese people like Katsudon and suhi very much. Katsudon is prepared with rice, breaded pork, Japanese sauce, egg and spring onions.

HT: People seem to love the dishes at Crepe Sayu and the way you cook.

Sayuri: We have some regulars. Some had already developed a taste for Japanese food.

They say this sushi is very good and that they like it a lot.

Some like the food so much they come almost every day. There are some who have been coming ever since we opened and love the way “Sayuri cooks.” “It’s great, so well done!” They say.

A woman was telling me her daughter and son-in-law adore sushi and live in the US now. I’ll send them some pictures, so they know there’s a place like that in Havana now.

A Japanese woman said our rissoles are very good, that they’re different from the ones in Japan, in both shape and taste. The man with her, a Cuban now living in Japan, adds that the rissole has a bit of Japan and Cuba in it.

The business is going very well.

Sayuri Yoshida has one of the most authentic small businesses in Old Havana in terms of taste. And she is drawing more and more regulars. The establishment is open Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 7 pm. Sayuri’s email address is: [email protected]



16 thoughts on “Japanese Woman Opens Restaurant in Old Havana

  • This is a delightful story. Her perspective regarding Cuba is likely shared by many foreigners. But let’s say her Japanese restaurant in Havana is a huge success. Will the Castros allow her to open two more restaurants just like it? Can she franchise her ideas? Can she directly import the authentic ingredients from Japan? What kind of advertising can she do? Television commercials? Billboards? The answer to all of these questions are NO. As long as you want to stay a cute little corner business with three employees, no problem. But if the goal is to grow to be a dynamic economic engine that contributes to the growth of the Cuban economy, the Castros are not interested. As long as these small businesses stay cute, small and politically powerless, they can exist.

    Reply
    • Isn’t that a good thing. If you go to somewhere like London, every street you walk down has exactly the same half dozen corporate chains and every pub has the same dreary chips created from the same dreary packet. No variety – no choice.

      Reply
      • It’s a good thing for you and I as tourists. But for a Cuban (or a Japanese woman) with the smarts and the willingness to work hard to own something more than a cozy little eaterie, it is a waste of talent and opportunity. You may eschew McDonald’s, but a bunch of young people got their first job working and starting on a path of responsibility because of slinging Big Macs.

        Reply
        • It’s interesting to note that not that long ago a local TV channel had some images of Cuban migrants who had washed up on Miami Beach eating at a local Burger King. The Spanish language station noted how they thought those burgers were the best things they had ever eaten in their lives. One was quoted as saying; “this is why we came to the Miami (I’m sure they meant to say the U. S.) not that I’m a fan of fast food, but you can imagine the quality of good ghe average Cuban has access to.

          I wonder if dani has ever tried true Cuban cuisine. Come to Miami dani….give it a shot!

          Reply
      • What a sad life you live. You must be the only person to go to London and manage to find the worst places to eat! And let’s be honest, Cuba, with its few resources and lack of a secondary market, has some of the worst restaurants I’ve ever tried. There are of course a few gems in the rough, and its a miracle they can go do much with so little, but for the most part they suck. Ever tried to eat Pizza in Cuba? Uggghhh

        Reply
        • There is no need for personal insults. I have never, ever resorted to that tactic on this site. I travel to London quite often and independent restaurants, cafes or pubs are almost impossible to find. Some places have as many as five Starbucks all on one street. As for Cuba I agree – the food on the whole is bad and I have avoided the pizzas after hearing that they sometimes contain condoms, but some places were good. I think it is getting better and there is a lot of potential. And no I have never been to the US.

          Reply
          • Actually, dani, you have hurled personal insults at Moses & myself many, many times. Just saying.

          • I remember saying that you were totalitarian and gullible as far as US policy is concerned. But that was describing a view. I once used the term cappuccino conservatives and Langley contingent but that was meant as a joke. That is different from saying someone leads a sad life or lacks intelligence or calling someone a simpleton or loony. When have I done anything like that?

          • You called me a racist for pointing out the fact that Nelson Mandela was for a while a member of an organization which practiced terrorism. And by your own admission you called me a totalitarian (do you even understand the meaning of that term, or are you following John G’s party line on political terminology?) and gullible. None of those terms accurately applies to me.

            Did somebody call you a simpleton or loony? I’ve been away a while, so perhaps I missed it. You have never stuck me as either.

            Now, let me ask you something: you have long advocated the US normalizing relations with Cuba and lifting the US embargo, as a viable path toward reforming and moderating the Cuban political system and improving the atrocious human rights situation in Cuba.

            It is now more than 9 months since Obama announced his new policy on US-Cuabn relations. During that time, US & Cuban diplomats have met to discuss a variety of issues and Obama has used his authority to reduce travel & trade restrictions. In his speech at the UN, Obama even called for the embargo to be lifted.

            Meanwhile, the repression of Cuban dissidents has increased significantly, arrests and beatings of Cuban human rights activists are a weekly occurrence, even in front of the Pope, (who did not seem at all upset at the sorry spectacle). In his speech at the UN, Raul Castro rejected the very concept of human rights as an imperialist interference in his way of ruling Cuba.

            Therefore, the evidence so far is that your hypothesis has failed the test. Conditions in Cuba have gotten worse, not better even as Obama gives Raul everything he can, while receiving zero concessions in return.

            So here are the questions I put to you:

            Is this not the path you advocated? Have conditions in Cuba improved or gotten worse? At what point will you admit that the Castro regime has no interest and no intention of ever improving its respect for the human rights of the Cuban people? At what point will you admit your were wrong?

          • I never called you racist. I remember the conversation and it was somebody else. My comments whether accurate or not were at least in the context of your views.

            As to your question. The human rights situation in Cuba has continuously gotten better over the years. If you take the situation under Fidel at one time there were around 1000 political prisoners. That reduced to around 100 and Raul has released many since coming to power. According to Amnesty International there are 5 prisoners of conscience at present.

            Though I have used the term political prisoner it is a grey area. Some were convicted for hijacking boats and stealing off the state which according to the Ladies in White is a political act (as state property is theft or something like that). Some broke the law by accepting money from the US – here I am a bit sympathetic as it is difficult in Cuba to have a job outside of the government – but they were still breaking the law rather than simply expressing an opinion. And that isn’t just my view, Sweden (see wikkileaks) also had doubts as to the validity of the status of political prisoners.

            I would say that things have improved immeasurably over recent years and would improve even further if the US agreed to stop their clandestine activities. There are still issues which shouldn’t be ignored but a lot of commentators here exaggerate because they sympathize with the political objectives of dissidents like the Ladies in White. But look at the facts – Havana Times recently reported on a meeting where Cubans of all persuasions freely discussed the problems of the country and there were no reports of arrests. Many Cubans write articles critical of the government all the time. The Ladies in White march EVERY Sunday mostly without any response from the government. I suggest looking at the index on human rights by country in order to put the situation into the proper perspective. Compare this to the fact that a youth of 17 is about to be executed for protesting in Saudi Arabia which nobody seems to care about. The UK may well be called on to carry out the sentence.

            Finally I would say that the dissident issue isn’t the only criteria worth considering when judging the rapprochement between Cuba and the US. Don’t the ordinary, patriotic and non-political Cubans have a right to a better future.

          • Thank you for your thoughtful response to my question. I will take your word that it wasn’t you who insulted me. Let’s move on to the real issues?

            The Cuban leadership has stated that there will be no political changes in Cuba. Ever. It is not in their intention to change, and given that the Castro regime maintains an iron grip on all political processes, it does not seem likely that there will be any political changes.

            Raul has shifted the methods of police repression from those practiced by his older brother. Instead of long term sentences against a few dissidents, Raul uses short term detentions against many. Contrary to your statement that the Ladies in White are usually not arrested, in fact, the Castro regime police arrest and detain dozens of them every Sunday. Often, it’s many of the same Ladies who are re-arrested time again. Every once in a while, the police will hold a few of them for longer periods. Laura Pollan, the founder of the Ladies in White, died while in Castro’s prison, in circumstance which were suspicious.

            Currently, the artist Danilo Maldonado (aka “El Sexto”) is in jail on charges of disrespecting revolutionary leaders. He was on a hunger strike for several days, although word is he has broken off the hunger strike yesterday. http://translatingcuba.com/category/authors/el-sexto-danilo-maldonado-machado/

            So you can argue that the police state repression has eased off slightly, or shifted in style, but it would be an exaggeration to say that “things have improved immeasurably over recent years”. Small, measured improvements maybe, but certainly not “immeasurably”.

            Are there other countries with worse human rights records? Certainly. I would far rather visit, or live in, Cuba than Saudi Arabia or North Korea. (The example of Saudi Arabia raises the issue of the different categories of freedoms. While not perfect, Cubans have greater religious freedom than the people of, or even visitors to, Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia allows greater economic & migratory freedom than Cuba does.)

            On press freedom, Cuba #169 out of 180 in 2015. Over the past decade, press freedom rankings for Cuba have drifted up or down a few points. You cannot say press freedom has improved by any measure.

            For political freedom, Cuba remains in the “worst of the worst” category, scoring 6.5 (7 being the worst possible score). https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2015/cuba The same organization ranks Saudi Arabia worse than Cuba, at 7. Again, not “immeasurably improved” , but rather a very small measure of slight improvement in some, but not all, areas.

            Therefore, I find it hard to accept the argument that Cuba will move toward greater freedom and respect for human rights as the US & Cuba normalize relations. The available evidence points to continuing political repression in Cuba, despite the shift in US-Cuban relations.

          • You raise a lot of issues regarding the political system, the press and economic freedom. I could argue and provide evidence that there have been improvements in all these areas. However they are nothing to do with human rights.

            Human rights issues are contained within the Universal declaration of Human Rights and include such things as freedom from torture, proper trial, freedom to your nationality, religious freedom and freedom of speech etc. The difference between these is that they actually harm people physically. Whether the press is owned or run by a couple of billionaires or by the government doesn’t. You get crucified and beheaded for protesting in Saudi Arabia – you don’t in Cuba.

            The Freedom House site you reference for your data is hardly independent or objective. They are financed by the US government and part of their mission statement is supporting Israel. I suggest checking the following link http://www.theguardian.com/Tables/4_col_tables/0,,258330,00.html. Though the results are a bit old you can see that Cuba 35th in the (gdp factored in results) which is two positions worse than the US. Or if you prefer 42nd overall. The criteria are Extrajudicial executions, disappearances, torture/inhuman treatment, deaths in custody, prisoners of conscience, unfair trials and so on. Also check Amnesty international reports.

            Some of your facts regarding the dissidents sound dodgy. From what I’ve read Laura Pollan died in intensive care following respiratory problems and a strain of dengue fever http://news.yahoo.com/laura-pollan-founder-cuban-protest-group-dies-004916321.html. A number of years ago the church negotiated for the Ladies in White to march every Sunday. Where is the evidence that they get arrested nearly every Sunday? Where are the photos?

          • You can find plenty of photographs of the Ladies in White getting arrested every Sunday:

            http://panampost.com/belen-marty/2015/09/15/castro-arrests-50-ladies-in-white/

            “Cuba human rights group reports 882 arrests in September” http://marcmasferrer.typepad.com/uncommon_sense/

            You say you could show evidence for improvements in the political system in Cuba. Please do that! Given how the Cuban rulers have specifically declared there will be no changes to their political system, I can’t see where you would find such evidence. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

            Human rights include free speech, free press (which is part of free speech), freedom of association, freedom of religion, freedom of migration, and the right to free & independent labour unions. Cuba denies all of those things, (with the exception of some improvement in religious freedoms lately).

            The right to due process before the law is routinely denied. The judiciary is not independent of the police, party & government. Therefore, a fair trail is not possible in Cuba. There are credible reports of beatings by police & prison guards and of torture of Cuban dissidents. http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/former-cuban-political-prisoner-testifies-about-torture/

            The Castro regime claimed Laura Pollan died of dengue fever (which, if it is true, she contracted while in one of Castro’s fetid jails). She claimed the prison guards injected her with an unknown substance and against her will.

            Since you site Amnesty International, here’s a recent report from AI on human rights in Cuba,

            “By the end of the year Cuba had still failed to ratify the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which it had signed in February 2008. The government did not respond to requests to visit Cuba from the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, sent in October 2013, or from the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, sent in March 2014. The authorities have not granted Amnesty International access to the country since 1990.”

            https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/americas/cuba/report-cuba/

          • You make my point. There are plenty of pictures of the Ladies in White but the only one showing them being arrested clearly shows that they had sat down in the middle of the road and were blocking the traffic. No riot police, no alsatians, no truncheons beating down on heads, no blood pouring out of wounds, no plastic bullets.

            There have been a number of signs of improvements to the political system. Raul in 2012 told delegates to guard against “false unanimity” and “we need to accustom ourselves to expressing truths fact to face, looking each other straight in the eye, to disagree and argue, to even disagree with what leaders say”. He also called for an “end to ‘bossiness’. There have been more constructive discussions and disagreements in meetings (see reports by Fernando Ravsberg). Also recently votes in the parliament have not been so unanimous and dissidents recently took part in the electoral process (though these things have happened in the past occasionally as well). The Cuban government didn’t state that there would never be changes to the political system. A government spokesperson recently said that they needed to improve the democracy in the country. There is a new electoral law being discussed at the moment.

            Human rights doesn’t include a free press. Yoani Sanchez can’t be put in prison for her news site, but there is no requirement for Cuba to host her site on their servers. The same reason there is no requirement for the Washington Times to print an article by myself or Circles to allow my post on this site. Different issue completely.

            You point out evidence of Human Rights Abuses some of which are definitely valid, but anyone can find evidence of abuses in any country and site an obscure website to back up the claims. Some people claim Osama Bin Laden was innocent and that the leaders of the Baader Meinhov gang were murdered by the German state. The issue you are not dealing with is quantifying and putting in perspective. I have given you links to a site by a reputable independent newspaper which places Cuba 42nd, now do you agree that there are 41 states that are worse than Cuba and if so why aren’t these countries sanctioned? Regarding the Amnesty report. Have you read the report on Mexico – here is one quote “Impunity for human rights violations and ordinary crimes remained the norm. More than 22,000 people remained abducted, forcibly disappeared or missing”. Even Canada gets condemned for “systematic violations of the rights of Indigenous Peoples”.

          • Now you wish to be civil? …That’s new. You have, in my experience, resorted to that tactic often enough. Regardless I did not mean to hurl an insult at you. Your description of the London food scene was not quite as enlightened in your original post. If you would have described it originally, as you did subsequently, I wouldn’t have felt compelled to respond to the post.

            You should try Miami if you want to experience real Cuban cuisine. It’s simply not to be found in Cuba. Hopefully one day I’ll visit my homeland and be able to enjoy a proper Tasajo.

  • Wow brave move! Would anybody else move their children to Cuba for primary education? Does anybody know the strengths of the Cuban primary education system?

    Reply

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