Do you eat Japanese food these days? There are widely three types of Japanese cuisine available in India. The first is traditional Japanese, which requires very specific (and often hard-to-find) ingredients and chefs that have spent years training.
Then there’s Modern Japanese, most famously known and created by Chef Nobuo Matsuhisa in Los Angeles and New York. This was perfected by the German, former chef in Rainer Becker’s life, when he launched his first Zuma in London.
Between them, Nobu and Zuma defined the modern Japanese trend, an accessible version of cuisine with great flavours. (Authentic Japanese has delicate and delicate flavours.)
Then there is what my friend Sameer Sen calls “Japanese disco”. In India, this takes the form of the types of sushi rolls that no Japanese would ever eat, filled with masala and spices. This is the type of Japanese cuisine that has spread all over India because a) it can be spicy, b) Indians love umami which you get by dipping your rolls in soy sauce, and c) you put cheap, cooked ingredients in the rolls so you don’t have to worry about getting On expensive raw fish and because no special training is required for chefs: any idiot can make disco sushi.
Sushi first came to India in five star hotels. After Nobu refused to turn down the Taj group, the Taj group turned to Masaharu Morimoto, who was the New York Nobu Executive Chef. Morimoto’s cuisine had evolved in the years since he left Nobu but for Mumbai (and later Delhi), he introduced the Nobu menu, and convinced rich Indians that dishes like whitefish carpaccio were authentically Japanese. Later, Augusto Cabrera started the sushi revolution in Delhi from his desk at 360 degrees in Oberoi.
In the fifteen years that followed, modern Japanese turned to Japanese disco in India. You will get sushi rolls almost everywhere now, even on the rolls where they share space with the biryani. The advantage five-star hotels had is gone: the chefs trained by those hotels have set up elsewhere, buying the same ingredients from the same suppliers and making food often better than the five-star version at a third of the price.
I’ve eaten modern Japanese all over India in the last month and some have been very good. The most expensive meal was at Megu in Delhi at night. Migo is one of only three restaurants in India to be included in the list of the 50 Best Restaurants in Asia. Realizing the responsibility this placed on the restaurant, Megu tried hard to live up to his new stature.
I went for lunch with my friends Georgette and Nero Singh. Gurjit served in Japan as an IFS officer and learned Japanese. Nero, a distinguished civil servant and international diplomat, also lived in Japan and speaks its language.
They were intrigued by many of the dishes offered by Chef Shubham Thakur because modern Japanese cuisine is not well known in Japan. But they admitted that the meal was delicious and Japanese in style.
When ITC Gardenia opened Edo Restaurant in Bangalore, the idea was to attract Japanese expats in the city, so, the food was mostly traditional and authentic. Since then it has softened somewhat and Japanese food has become more modern. Edo is my default choice when I eat out in Bangalore and I believe it is one of the best Japanese restaurants in the country, with the talented Amit Batra as Chef.
Even in expensive Japanese restaurants in India, Nigerian sushi is usually rubbish. The goal of nigiri is not only fish, but rice grains. This should hold together but cannot be too cold or too tight. The rice should be loose and still firm. This is clearly not an easy thing, and hardly anyone in India is trained to do it properly.
I try not to order nigiri sushi in India because the rice is always wrong so I notice when someone does it well. I was surprised, for example, to find a good Nigerian at the Pan-Asian Restaurant in ITC in Chola where a chef named Luk Thapa made much better rice grains than usual.
I was not surprised by the superior quality of the nigiri at Izumi, an independent Japanese restaurant in Mumbai, because Norisha Kapli is one of the most talented chefs in India and has gone to Japan to learn sushi properly. Izumi offers modern Japanese (and I think some Japanese disco) but the quality of the ingredients and attention to detail are authentically Japanese. It is one of the two outstanding Japanese restaurants in Mumbai.
The other is Mizu which is run by two young men, entrepreneur Vidant Malik and talented chef Lakhan Yetani. They will do a modern Japanese business and even a Japanese disco (Lakhan says market demands forced him to add sushi to the menu) but the focus is on authentic Japanese flavors and techniques. On the night of my go it was the technical skills that impressed me the most: the dashi had depth, the chuanmoshi was shiveringly perfect, and even the well-made modern Japanese stuff: a nigiri was burnt topped with foie gras.
Both Izumi and Mizu operate at relatively low margins. They use the same expensive imported fish as the five star hotels, but they charge half the cost of their dishes as the hotels. Plus, in both cases (Norisha and Lakhan), the chefs cook with real passion; They are not limited to time until they are transferred to a new hotel in a new city.
This is the strength of the modern Japanese boom that quality modern Japanese gets just about everywhere. Also in Mumbai is Sifah, named after the Thai chef who adores all over the city. But Siva is much more than Chef Siva. When Siva cooked at the Four Seasons Hotel Mumbai, she met her husband Karan Bani, who worked with the hotel’s top Japanese chef. So, more than half of the Seva (restaurant) menu is modern Japanese, and the day I went there were more people ordering Japanese food than those ordering delicious Seva Thai food.
Delhi is less advanced than Mumbai when it comes to Japanese food (Bangalore may be ahead of both Mumbai and Delhi) but it is possible to get a perfectly acceptable sushi roll even though it leans towards Japanese disco. I usually order menus at Cha-Shi in Emporio or at the coffee shop in Chanakya. Threesixty, the original sushi place, still serves rolls and I love Japanese food at 361 in Gurgaon Oberoi. In fact, Oberua has learned, more than any other chain, how to serve sushi rolls to a better-than-average standard in all their hotels: even Phoenix in Mumbai serves good sushi.
Does this mean that the complete sushi revolution has taken over urban India? Yes it is. Does this mean we love Japanese food? no not like that.
To understand the popularity of sushi rolls, you have to take them out of the context of the kitchen you grew up in. People who like pizza don’t necessarily like Italian food. People who like momos don’t always like Tibetan or Nepalese foods. These are individual dishes that passed from the kitchens of the parents and became popular.
So, to Vada Pav, Chicken Lollipops and golgappas, add Disco Sushi!.
The opinions expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, May 7, 2022
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