nourish: Hungry Ninja
When a new business sets up shop in Downtown Galt, the students of UWSA are always among the first to feel the ripples. If that business includes anything related to “sushi”, it’s a whole other story. Hungry Ninja, a Japanese-inspired takeout spot near the corner of Main and Water St., opened just a couple of weeks ago and became an instant trending topic in studio. Ien and I decided to go sit down and have a talk with head chef and overall woman-in-charge, Maiko, about her approach to food preparation and her journey to opening a restaurant of her very own.
As I walk through the cafe’s open garage-style door (a unique and well-loved feature that came with the storefront during the original purchase), I can see that the space is already becoming a lovable summer hangout spot – wooden benches and tables seat heaps of students and locals on their lunch break; the air is open and inviting.
Maiko sits down with me and tells me about where Hungry Ninja all began: she had conceived the idea of opening up her own restaurant three years ago, after having worked as a manager in a high-end sushi restaurant in Downtown Toronto and growing up in the heart of Japan. Back in Japan, Maiko had originally been studying piano at a music university, eventually going on to teach piano to students after moving to Canada in 2006. In the back of her mind, however, Maiko knew that her dream was to start a restaurant. The initial concept, she says, was more similar to an Izakaya-style sake bar, but after settling on the Downtown Galt location and factoring in the needs of the surrounding area, it was decided that the sushi bowl and sushi-rrito would be the way to go. When asked about the transition from Japan to Canada, Maiko speaks highly of Canada’s rich diversity of culture, nationalities, style, and trends. To Maiko, Canada represents more freedom. Perhaps even the freedom of chasing dreams of starting up a restaurant.
In terms of comparing the downtown culture of Cambridge to that of Toronto, Maiko seems enthusiastic about her choice of starting up in Cambridge. Although Toronto may have more people and a faster-paced “business vibe” to it, Maiko revels at the fact that she can talk and connect with her customers on a more intimate level and basically feel right at home. “You don’t want any miserable, grumpy people giving you your food,” Maiko laughs. And it is quite fitting that good service is a value that Maiko upholds genuinely and passionately. She strives to conduct herself in a manner that is friendly and memorable, and this glowing personality shows through even during those brief minutes over the front counter.
Needless to say, Maiko’s Japanese upbringing is an important factor when it comes to Hungry Ninja’s food philosophy. She recalls a recipe for marinated tuna that she got from her own father, a topping option that appears on the menu she constructed herself. As head chef, Maiko can get creative and personal with the menu. She tailors the sushi toppings with her own tastes in mind, and ensures that it is completely customizable and flexible enough for all kinds of people to enjoy. Her personal favourites are the avocado and sesame seeds, the latter of which she attributes to being the key to a good sushi bowl or burrito. Maiko also takes pride in providing healthy food for the residents of Cambridge, with no MSG added as well as gluten-free or vegan options made available. All food items are completely natural – and indeed, you can even watch the vegetables being cut fresh if you want to.
I decide to have a salmon rice bowl while Ien opts for marinated tuna topped with yuzu-shoyu, which Maiko likens to a “street-food-like vinaigrette”. The cool fish, warm rice, tart dressings, and wide array of toppings like fish eggs and veggies and avocado make for a complex and yummy combination of flavours. On a humid summer day like today, the rice bowls are a refreshing karate kick to the taste buds.
For the students of our school, Maiko simply wants Hungry Ninja to be a place where you can come get some food the same way your mom makes it – no weird stuff added – and then come back again if you like it.
“Eat good, keep it real,” Maiko says with a smile.
nourish is an ongoing review series of food purveyors within reach of UWSA students. If you are interested in contributing to this series or have related inquiries/concerns, please email email@example.com.