Japanese food has stepped out of five-stars and into mid-priced standalone restaurants. Anoothi Vishal captures the trend
In Delhi, sushi — and vegetarian sushi, an Indian creation entirely — has made it to wedding- and kitty-party menus. Yum Yum Tree, a south-Delhi diner where sushi comes on a conveyor belt, consumes about 180 kg salmon every month — half its consumption of chicken! Not bad in fowl-land. Japanese is the new Chinese in India. It is being served everywhere from Amritsar to Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. As the market grows, the prices too are turning affordable. Delivery service Sushiya now has a restaurant format offering unlimited sushi and appetizers for Rs 499.
Like most international cuisines, Japanese arrived in India through five-star hotels. Sakura at The Metropolitan in Delhi was first off the mark. But it was really Wasabi at the Taj in Mumbai, and the Threesixty at The Oebroi in Delhi that made Japanese chic and popular.
Japanese food in India is mostly American-Japanese: all those sushi rolls stuffed with soft-shell fried crabs and embellished with roe or golden prawns served with wasabi-mayonnaise are pop dishes of this genre. In contrast, the classic nigiri sushi, served in pairs, has fewer takers. And while sashimi may be bragged about, it is a carpaccio of yellow tail or a super-expensive Kobe beef steak that are the wow dishes. As restaurateur Varun Tuli of Yum Yum Tree notes: “It is really the trends and cuisines popular in London or New York that come here.”
Japanese fusion fare is now seeping down to newer standalones, chic bars and lounges, as young chefs attempt sophisticated dishes by merging Japanese accents with European ingredients and cooking styles. At Ai, the “contemporary Japanese” restaurant at MGF Mall in the capital, Chef Saby creates salads, desserts and inventive main courses — “slivers of tenderloin dressed with Apple and yuzu”. At Circa 1193 in Mehrauli, Chef Achal Aggarwal will give you grilled foie gras drizzled with teriyaki jus, or shrimp tempura with wasabi aioli! At a recent chef competition, says ITC Hotels Senior Executive Chef Gev Desai, “it was surprising to find a very large number of participants attempting Japanese preparations or their fusion/derivatives.”
While fusion is a way forward, there is also increasing appreciation for some purer forms of the food. Robatayaki, a selection of Japanese grills, is a huge hit in the metros. So are teppanyaki (with a dash of extra soy sauce to cater to Indian palates) and yakitori (minus the innards that are routinely grilled in Tokyo street eateries), much more than the fried tempura which hasn’t quite found favour with health-conscious young diners. Udon, soba and ramen bowls are getting popular too. But the future, perhaps, lies with Izakaya or pub-style diners, serving an array of snacks along with drinks. In Bangalore, Edo at ITC Gardenia has introduced Izakaya-style dining with a selection of sushi, sashimi, tempura, robatayaki grills, and baked, steamed and broiled dishes teamed with a selection of sake, shochu and Japanese whisky.
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Most top-end restaurants say it is important to have a Japanese chef. An expat chef costs an average of about Rs 3.5 lakh a month. From guiding local chefs under him on sourcing to cutting the fish optimally, the expat chef is important because “he knows the latest trends internationally. What our chefs know is what came in 10 years ago,” says Rajesh Khanna, director of food and beverages at the Metropolitan Hotel.
A large chunk of the cost is the fish. Top restaurants say they import most of their fish because seafood of the “freshness and type” demanded by Japanese food is unavailable in local markets. Chef Desai gives the instance of high-grade scallops from Okaido, absolutely white in colour, whose quality is unmatched even by those from other cold waters such as the Canadian scallops which were rejected by the Japanese chefs at Edo. However, those running mid-priced restaurants say it is a myth that all seafood is imported from Japan.
Invariably, prawns from India are used. Salmon, an Atlantic fish, comes routinely from Scotland via Dubai. The black cod used in Japanese food is identical in fat structure to the Chilean seabass, more easily available, and 80 per cent of the yellow fin tuna is Indian. West Bengal, of course, is full of eel. “Five-star restaurants like to hype the fact that the seafood is coming from Tsukiji in Tokyo which is a wholesale market where fish from everywhere, including India, lands. The question really is how long it has been on the ice before arriving in India,” says a restaurateur.
While it may be possible to use Indian seafood in Japanese dishes — some chefs talk about how surmai is a fair substitute for yellow tail, especially given the difference in their prices (Rs 400 per kg versus Rs 4,000 per kg) — the limiting factor is the lack of cold chains in the country. It is a matter of conjecture whether smaller, competitively-priced restaurants and chains use local fish. But one obvious way in which prices of, say, sushi can be brought down is by using lesser quantities inside the rolls.
Other ingredients also need to be imported because, says Desai, “their uniqueness is the hallmark of classic Japanese creations” or because they “are simply not available in India”. Certain products like endamame (soyabean), tempura flour and sushi rice that can have equivalents in India are imported because of the problems of consistency and supply here. Says Tuli: “While some chefs have been talking about rice from Nepal or Assam or soyabean from the hills, supply chains have to develop as yet.” Also, consistency, say, of tempura flour is vital. “Even a three-four per cent difference in hydration is huge,” he adds.
On the other hand, the best Waghu beef now comes from farms in Australia, and, instead of using sushi rice from Japan, certain mid-level restaurateurs are trying to use cheaper strains developed in America! In the end, it is sourcing of ingredients that defines the quality of Japanese diners in India.
Will Indians redefine Japanese food, just as they redefined Chinese?