Monday, November 29, 1999

French-Jap, American-Jap, and now Indian-Japanese

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Last Sunday, I visited Sakura, one of the first Japanese restaurants to have opened in the country, almost a decade ago, for an excellent brunch that has become a religion with its followers over the years. The outlet that I visited was not the original Sakura though —at Delhi's Metropolitan Hotel. Instead, this was a newer sister concern that has come up more recently in Gurgaon at an office complex, which does not make for the most stimulating of places for a casual visitor.On the Sunday I visited, the building wore a deserted look, the elevators were under maintenance, and the cleaning staff, with their brooms and pails, was all pervasive. The restaurant stood in one corner of the first floor and as I walked in, I was pretty sure that ours would be one of the very few tables occupied because, after all, few walk-ins could be expected at such a location. Wrong. Inside, Sakura was buzzing with patrons. There was not a table free and, indeed, even the private dining room had been taken up. More importantly, the food and fish was fresh and the waiters knew exactly what they were serving and the right suggestions to make.The success of Japanese food in India always takes me by surprise. Here is, after all, a cuisine so different from our own regional ones—one that places a greater than average emphasis on the purity of flavours. And whether the ingredients be offal or meats, all of these are allowed to stand out with minimal flavouring. Indian cuisines, on the other hand, follow an entirely different approach. The masala coating vegetables or meats is complex and usually overpowering. There are some exceptions to this rule, of course. Much of Kashmiri food, for instance, or Brahmanical cooking in many parts where satvik fare is cooked with just a dash of asafoetida, or the unexplored delicacies of the North-East perhaps are far subtler in their approach. Even tandoori food from the Punjab (despite the unfortunate addition of red colour at commercial establishments) is far simpler than the curry-based cooking of other parts. But by and large, culinary simplicity is not something that we really appreciate in this country with at least a 500-year-old tradition of simmering dishes overnight or spicing up kebab mixtures and then stuffing these further with herbs and chillies or hung curd (our indigenous equivalent of cheese)!Since Sakura's advent 10 years ago, however, there has been an entire revolution in the way Indians—at least a certain elite section—perceive the proverbial 'raw fish'. While the actual raw fish, sashimi, may be something that many may not be comfortable with still, what has certainly gone pop is, of course, the sushi. With takeaways and kiosks in malls, 'supermarket sushi' is now an urban phenomenon; the spin off being that maki rolls (including innovative vegetarian platters) get passed around at wedding banquets and at-home dos with the same regularity. More serious restaurants do more authentic, and certainly fresher stuff. And having the super expensive tuna belly at the Oberoi's Three Sixty, the highest grossing restaurant in the country, or the pop-kitsch California-style, mayo-filled rolls at Wasabi at the Taj is surely in the realm of power dining.But if everyone from the elite to the aspiring has taken to sushi, two other Japanese cooking traditions deserve mention: the Yakitori and Teppanyaki. Food is grilled in one and 'stir fried' on a very hot iron plate on the other. Both are 'fast' cooking methods and thus street favourites in Japan, where a glass of hot or cold sake may accompany the food. The common seasoning for food thus cooked is rock salt. In India, of course, we have changed that to suit our overburdened palates.While every 'Oriental' or 'pan-Asian' restaurant worth its salt (!) today has Yakitori and Teppanyaki counters to cater to the new, weight-conscious diner, the food that is served up is definitely Indianised. There is lots of soy sauce and garlic that is added and restaurants are even known to device their own flavourings. The result may be more Chinese than Japanese. But it is something that we all love and it is here to stay.World wide, the trendiest 'type' of Japanese cuisine doing the rounds is French-Japanese, a coming together of two strong (but similar), visually stylish, culinary traditions. Naturally, it is a rage. Then, there are the Nobu or Morimoto type restaurants with 'contemporarised' (often America- nised) Japanese. If you have been to Wasabi, you know what we mean: crisp prawns can come deliciously dunked in a smooth Mayonnaise sauce, you can get served yellow tail tuna not just as sashimi but as carpaccio, and sorbets, including wasabi flavoured ones, can interrupt courses. Whether or not you agree with the term, here is fusion cooking at its most palatable. What it certainly not is traditional or authentic Japanese cooking. The royal, multi-course Kaiseki meal, for instance, is still an unknown quantity in India (though Sakura offers it at a day's notice).With Japanese—and fusion Japanese—picking up in the metros, also in part due to the presence of a strong Japanese expat community, restaurateurs looking to invest their money are naturally turning towards this cuisine, despite the high cost of imported ingredients which are a must to do a quality Japanese place. This year, the sushi scene is likely to explode more and Japanese food, in whatever bastardised form, percolate further down to the masses. As of today, the two pop choices that restaurateurs have is to go the Indian-Japanese route (rather like Indian-Chinese) or the Morimoto route, that is globally chic and much more acceptable. What they finally choose to do is worth waiting for.—The writer is a food critic

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